More than a building: The Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases marks a new era in research

The new Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases. (CVMBS Photo)

Imagine: A sneaky little virus emerges in a live-animal market on one side of the world, and within months, the entire planet knows its name.

The people of the Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases have been imagining similar scenarios for decades, so it’s fitting that these visionary scientists are moving into a new building during the very pandemic they are studying, among others.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is the latest example of a growing pattern in our globalized world, where emerging and zoonotic diseases spill over from animals and quickly spread within human populations. In the last decade, large outbreaks of Ebola, Chikingunya, Zika, and various coronaviruses have emerged around the world. These infectious diseases will not be addressed by one single person isolated in a lab, but by multidisciplinary scientists coming together to leverage their expertise and creatively solve these complicated problems.

The Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases building at Colorado State University’s Foothills Campus officially opened October 15, 2020. Constructed as a new home for the 33-year-old Arthropod-Borne and Infectious Disease Laboratory, the 41,000 square foot facility contains brand-new laboratory spaces, insectaries, and offices.

Moving into a new era

With a new name and a new home, laboratory faculty move into a new era in their ongoing, world-class investigation of the many emerging diseases that endanger human and animal health. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the enduring importance of infectious disease research for prevention, diagnostics, and treatment.

CSU committed $22 million in 2017 to begin planning the first primary research facility fully funded by the university, in a “tribute to the research excellence and reputation that was built over decades by renowned faculty,” said Dr. Gregg Dean, head of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology.

The official groundbreaking for the new Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases building occurred June 18, 2018.

“This is an acknowledgment of the importance of the work that will take place in the future made possible by the prescient investment of millions of dollars by CSU leadership,” Dean said.

In a group already known for collaboration, the researchers are energized by the possibilities the new facility provides. Laboratory space within the building is open concept, allocating benches to research groups in an expansive area, with convenient access to tissue culture suites and insectaries, as well as large internal windows that look out on the surrounding open office spaces.

Professor Brian Foy, known for his research on Zika and West Nile virus, says the close proximity between the lab and new insectaries, as well as improved controls for temperature and humidity, will not only improve the quality of all studies, but allow for new studies on how infected mosquitoes can transmit viruses to non-infected mosquitoes in the same environment.

Moving her research from the Diagnostic Medicine Center to the new building, Associate Professor Christie Mayo says the collaborative space offers “scientific and interpersonal rewards and achievements that would be limited if we were not built in an open lab concept.”

Bringing scientists together, and attracting others outside of arboviruses, will provide time, space, and energy for vital interactions that make ambitious ideas and team science a possibility. Three faculty members with veterinary backgrounds are joining the center: Drs. Gregg Dean, Christie Mayo, and Allison Vilander.

Dean and Mayo see the move as an opportunity for their research staff and students to interact and grow, and to strengthen existing collaborations. Director Greg Ebel hopes the center will be a model for bringing people together from diverse places within infectious disease research and the university.

Side-by-side with students

“As we’ve started moving into the space, it really resonated with me how many more training opportunities I will have here,” said microbiology, immunology, and pathology Ph.D. student Laura St. Clair. “I am eternally grateful for all that this move represents for my education.”

A graduate trainee in the Rushika Perera lab, St. Clair was originally drawn to CSU for graduate school due to its highly collaborative nature, and her time within the center’s open-door and success-promoting culture has confirmed that CSU was the right choice for her. She sees the benefits for undergraduate students who work and volunteer in the labs, as they will have increased exposure to the range of vector-borne infectious disease research at the university.

Dr. Anna Fagre, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate in the Rebekah Kading lab, appreciates the support she receives from scientists across the group, including learning how to provide and receive constructive feedback in open environments, such as their weekly group seminars.

“They have been hugely impactful in shaping the kind of scientist I’ve become,” Fagre said.

These interactions and learning opportunities will continue for all, as the center builds on its history of training and shaping the next generation of scientists, both at the university and those visiting from around the world.

Acknowledging the past, and looking to the future, director Ebel feels the weight of responsibility to be a “good steward of the work done” in honor of the Arthropod-Borne and Infectious Disease Laboratory’s legacy, and to steer the Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases during an “evolution for a group stacked with talent and intellect,” Ebel said.

Bringing together talented scientists in one collaborative and state-of-the-art space is the first step, as the building opens the door to a new era in emerging and vector-borne infectious disease research at Colorado State University.

“The work in the Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases will be seen by few, but the impact of the programs it houses will be felt by many,” Dean said.

A history of disease expertise

The focus on emerging vector-borne infectious diseases at CSU began with the arrival of faculty with arbovirus experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s, attracted by the proximity to CDC and USDA infectious disease laboratories in Colorado.

Mid-1980s: Infectious diseases became a research focus area for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences by then-Microbiology Department Head Carol Blair, who recognized a growing field within the college.

Now an emeritus professor, Blair remembers how Barry Beaty’s lab on the fourth floor of the Microbiology building included a converted closet insectary. The growing need for arbovirus research and insectary space coincided with the conclusion of a radiation biology research program at the CRHL building on the Foothills Campus. With $11,000 to remodel the acquired building, the move officially established the Arthropod-Borne and Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

1987: Founding faculty included Director Barry Beaty, Carol Blair, Jon Carlson, Bill Marquardt, and Kenneth Olson, later joined by William Black and Ralph Smith.

2001: Beaty received the distinction of University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University for his outstanding scholarship, particularly on dengue, yellow fever, and encephalitis viruses.

Early 2000s: The faculty grew with the addition of Brian Foy and Brian Geiss.

2004: Colorado State University was selected as the Rocky Mountain Center of Excellence for biodefense and emerging infectious disease.

Early 2010s: Gregory Ebel, Rushika Perera, Tony Schountz, Mark Stenglein and Rebekah Kading came to CSU following the retirement of several founding members.

Together, the group continues the laboratory’s highly regarded expertise, investigating new waves of emerging and vector-borne infectious diseases including West Nile, Zika, chikingunya, Rift Valley fever, and coronaviruses. They have also developed extensive research into the unique role of bats as vectors of many infectious diseases.

Quickly recognized as a leader in arthropod- and vector-borne diseases, the laboratory was part of many university and national designations over the years, supporting CSU’s infectious disease expertise with funding for increased research and training. Most notably, Colorado State University’s selection as the Rocky Mountain Center of Excellence for biodefense and emerging infectious disease has encouraged multidisciplinary collaborations and supported additional BSL-3 facilities at the Foothills Campus.

The lab has also won several NIH and CDC training programs to engage university students and visiting scientists in arbovirology and entomology.

2014: Laboratory leaders began lobbying college and university leadership for new facilities by offering tours of the aging, moldy buildings.

2017: CSU committed $22 million to begin planning the first primary research facility ever fully funded by the university

2020: The Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases opens its doors, housing 10 labs and over 90 people.