Tuesday, October 6, 2015         

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UH faces deadline to plan research lab or lose funding

By Sean Hao


The University of Hawaii has about six months to convince the National Institutes of Health that it has a viable plan to build a regional biosafety laboratory or risk losing $32.5 million in federal funds, according to a university official.

Construction on the planned $47.5 million biosafety level 3, or BSL 3, lab was scheduled to start in November, near UH's John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kakaako. However, the project came to a halt last year when the state failed to release its entire $15 million share of project funding because of a budget shortfall. The proposed lab also lost its land to the Cancer Research Center, which now is being built near the medical school.

The university still wants to push ahead with plans to build the lab, said James Gaines, UH vice president for research. That includes potentially raising missing state money through a broader UH bond issuance and moving the lab to another unidentified spot, he said.

The project is not dead, Gaines said. However, UH needs to firm up its plans soon if the center is to be built.

"At this point I'd say (the project) has got a pulse but not a real steady heartbeat," Gaines said. "We're going to have to convince (the National Institutes of Health) within the next six months that we have a viable plan."

The planned lab would work in conjunction with a separate BSL 3 lab already in Kakaako. It would help researchers to develop new diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines for infectious Asia-Pacific diseases such as avian influenza, SARS, tuberculosis and West Nile encephalitis, according to the university.

The new lab also is expected to put UH in a better position to compete for National Institutes of Health grants.

The National Institutes of Health awarded the university $25 million to build the facility in 2005, then later boosted that contribution by $7.5 million to cover escalating costs. Those awards were contingent on $15 million in local matching funds, which were supposed to be provided by the state.

Early last year Gov. Linda Lingle released just $2.5 million, rather than the full $15 million, citing a state budget deficit. That, coupled with UH's inability to fund the lab via its capital improvement budget, derailed the project.

Following Lingle's decision, Gaines told the Star-Bulletin in February 2009 that "The NIH needs to see a positive signal quickly that the state will support the project, or Hawaii could lose the federal money."

The proposed lab, which is part of a UH push to specialize in infectious disease detection and drug discovery, was originally proposed for Waimano Ridge above Pearl City. However, UH asked for and received permission from the NIH to relocate to the Kakaako medical school campus because of the need for extensive infrastructure improvements at the Waimano site.

That added about a one-year delay to the project, which is expected to take five years to plan and build.

The state could benefit from lower construction costs if the lab is built soon, Gaines said.

"My rough take is if we went out for bid now, we could see bids lower than a few years ago," he said. "That's been the experience at UH."

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