Sedelia Dominguez is a PhD candidate studying the Francisella pathogen in a high-level biosafety laboratory at the Washington State University (WSU) Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health in Pullman, Washington. Reliable, uninterrupted electric power is absolutely essential to the research she and others perform in these labs as well as the safety of the surrounding community.
The laboratories are backed by a continuous supply of electric power, coursing across an intricate network of generators, wires, transformers, and substations—the electric power grid. The devices we make at SEL are embedded in this network, protecting the flow of power so she can focus on developing the next life-saving vaccine.
We do our part so they can do theirs, and together we power the future.
—Sedelia Dominguez, PhD candidate, WSU Allen School
The WSU Allen School is a mission-driven unit focused on the effects of animal health on human health. A large portion of research takes place overseas; those programs focus on the economic impacts of animal health on human health, typically in small farms and communities where people are more tightly integrated with both livestock and pets. The Allen School works to determine and create vaccine strategies that can have the biggest positive effect on the physical and financial health of a household.
In the WSU Allen School in Pullman, Washington, the research is mainly focused on the mechanisms of disease—the agents that are transmitted from animals to people through food or physical contact with an infected animal. They also work on the emergence of new diseases, including the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
The WSU Allen School houses multiple laboratories, including several biosafety level 3 labs, or BSL-3 labs. The biosafety level of a laboratory can range from 1 (low risk) to 4 (high risk). According to the CDC, microbes in a BSL-3 lab can be either indigenous or exotic, and they can cause serious or potentially lethal disease through respiratory transmission.
Sedelia is studying the Francisella pathogen, an agent that causes the disease Tularemia, or rabbit fever. This highly transmissible agent is considered a bioterrorism weapon and has been identified by the CDC as one of the major threats to national security and public health. The most dangerous way a human can get this disease is through aerosolization—inhalation of the bacteria. As little as 10 inhaled bacterium can lead to a deadly infection, especially if it’s not treated in time.
Sedelia is looking at how Francisella, on a molecular level, actually interacts within the human body. The agent is able to create an environment inside our cells that supports its own growth, taking key nutrients and doing so undetected for a surprising period of time.
“I’m looking at why our immune system is not reacting right away,” Sedelia said. “We want to understand what exactly it’s doing to trick the cell into thinking that it’s okay for [Francisella] to be in there and then spread clinically from lungs to spleen to liver.”
In addition to Francisella, other highly infectious bacteria, like Salmonella or Coxiella, could be doing the same thing: tricking the cell into thinking it’s in starvation mode so that it will start to produce more nutrients, which feed the bacteria.
There is currently no vaccine available. Antibiotics can help manage symptoms, but if the disease is not caught within the first five days, there is a high chance of mortality. Tularemia tends to be misdiagnosed. When the disease is obtained through inhalation, the clinical presentation is cough, fever, and swollen lymph nodes—all symptoms that can be misattributed to something else because of how rare Tularemia is.
Francisella found in nature is highly infectious and in the past was developed as a bioweapon, raising concerns that there may be genetically modified strains that are multi-drug resistant.
“In the lab, I am trying to understand what characteristics allow for the bacteria to be highly infectious, which can lead to the discovery of non-antibiotic treatment options,” Sedelia said.
Sedelia and the other participants in the lab wear “moon suits” to protect themselves, which have their own battery-controlled air supply, but the labs themselves are set up with very specific airflows and temperature controls. Air must go through special filters that pull out everything down to the size of pollen particles so that only sterile air emerges from the labs. This ensures the pathogens don’t get out into the community. This is a power-intensive environment; it relies on a number of redundant systems that will kick in to make sure that these laboratories stay safe.
The lab work is controlled through room temperature. They set up micro-environments tailored to the growth of whatever agent they’re studying, which means specific concentrations of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and more. In addition to controlling the environment, students use centrifuges, heating mantles, hot plates, freezers, and more—all of which depend on electric power—so they can study these agents correctly.
Controlling the airflow in the Allen School, or any BSL-3 lab or above, is critical. It’s a means to not only protect the public, but also to protect those inside the building on other floors who aren’t wearing special lab suits.
Airflow in the laboratory can never be recirculated, and that includes any time a door opens, which requires a certain type of air pressure. There must be enough negative airflow that even when a door opens, the air continues to be pulled into the room and gets pushed into a HEPA filter and decontaminated.
All controlled airflow paths have monitors. If at any point the airflow drops even to just a neutral pressure, all the alarms will go off. The monitoring system has at least two backups to ensure continuous airflow in the right direction. If everything happens to go down, including the backup systems, the entire building shuts down so that there is no airflow in or out.
“Everything inside our labs is dependent on electrical power: the airflow, alarms, safety hoods, everything,” Sedelia said. “I think about it every day.”
There is at least one backup generator that prioritizes the lab in case of a power outage. Power may not come back to the rest of the building, but it will definitely come back in the BSL-3 labs. That’s because if anyone has a tube with a pathogen sitting out and the power goes down, the airflow will be shut off for at least 5 seconds. This isn’t a concern for the person inside the lab because they will have their personal protective equipment, but it’s a concern for everyone else in the building and everyone outside in the community.
If for some reason the power outage is longer than that, workers in the labs know to quickly get out of that environment and destroy everything that could potentially escape. Although necessary for safety, it’s also a huge sacrifice to their research and could ruin years of work.
Ultimately, the end goal is to create a vaccine or an antimicrobial to fight off these infections. What’s tricky is finding a way to target the bacteria and not your human body proteins.
“Another part of my project is looking at Francisella proteins that specifically interact with our cells to cause disease,” Sedelia said. “We look at those Francisella proteins as potential targets for developing vaccines and treatments.”
From the generation source, high-voltage electricity travels great distances along transmission lines through a series of substations until it reaches communities, where it is distributed to homes, schools, businesses, and more. SEL devices play a critical role in protecting the power at each stage.