Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Ricketts Laboratory?

The Ricketts Laboratory is a highly secure and safe infectious disease research facility, built and operated by the University of Chicago, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), and sited on land owned by the U.S. Department of Energy at Argonne National Laboratory, southwest of Chicago. NIAID is one of the National Institutes of Health.

Who was Howard T. Ricketts?

Dr. Howard T. Ricketts (1871-1910) was a University of Chicago microbiologist who did research on infectious diseases in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He isolated the organisms, later named for him (Rickettsia), that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus. In honor of his achievement in scientific endeavor, as well as his lifelong interest in public health, the University of Chicago has named the planned Regional Biocontainment Laboratory for Dr. Ricketts.

Why was Argonne chosen as the location for the RBL?

There are many reasons why Argonne is an ideal site for the proposed regional laboratory.

Argonne already has unique facilities and capabilities to support infectious disease research.

  • The Advanced Photon Source (APS), the most brilliant source of hard X-rays in the western hemisphere.
  • The Structural Biology Center at the APS, which allows exceptionally rapid analysis of the structures of proteins relevant to disease (thus allowing timely design of vaccines and treatments).
  • The Midwest Center for Structural Genomics, an Argonne-led consortium of seven research institutions that focuses on application of robotics for rapid selection, generation, purification, and crystallization of proteins, along with high-speed computational and imaging methods.
  • Mathematics and Computer Science Division, offering extraordinary capabilities in computational analysis and modeling of protein structures and their functions.
  • Center for Nanoscale Materials, which links emerging knowledge about nano-scale materials to biological research (At the nano-scale, where sizes are measured in nanometers, properties of materials often differ from what we normally expect. One billion nanometers equal one meter or about 39 inches).

Argonne has extensive expertise in managing large, specialized research facilities; and each year Argonne supports thousands of researchers from many U.S. states and foreign countries, who come to use these facilities.

Access to Argonne’s site is tightly controlled and site security is excellent.

Argonne has been operating for more than 50 years, including the use of hazardous materials, and has an excellent safety record. In fact, Argonne is a major resource of technologies for the proper handling of hazardous materials and for environmental cleanup.

What is a Regional Center of Excellence (RCE)?

Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research are consortiums of research institutions in federally-designated regions. Their goals are to train researchers; to find better ways to detect, prevent and cure infectious diseases, in the form of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics; to collaborate with diverse approaches and techniques; and to assist in response to local, regional, or national crises involving infectious diseases, whether occurring naturally or caused by terrorists.

What if there is a release of a biological agent from the laboratory?

The exterior and interior construction of the building, rigid operating requirements, worker training, equipment monitoring systems, and security are all designed to prevent any releases. Multiple levels of complementary and redundant physical barriers and operational rules will be provided so each possible fault will have built-in backups. Even in the unlikely case of a release, the amount of material would be limited because the RBL would store and handle only very small quantities of infectious materials.

How safe is the Ricketts Laboratory building?

Safety was a guiding principle in the design of the laboratory. The building meets or exceeds all International Building Code and National Fire Protections Association codes and applicable site standards. The building also meets or exceeds applicable local and state codes, all current NIH design and policy guidelines, all CDC and NIH biosafety requirements and applicable federal regulations governing the use of select agents.The building was commissioned in accordance with the NIH Model Commissioning Guide and certification standards.

Will having such a research facility make Argonne and its neighboring communities a more likely target for terrorists?

One of the problems with terrorists is that it’s impossible to predict what they might do. One of their main goals is to make an impact, and we believe the Ricketts Laboratory would have little value for such intent.

What are the benefits to local communities of having the Ricketts Laboratory located nearby?

The Regional Biodefense Laboratories will be centers of research on infectious diseases, targeting both those that might occur naturally and those spread by bioterrorists. In addition to being part of the national biodefense initiative of the National Institutes of Health, it will be a local resource for training first responders and in case of a disease outbreak in the area. In case of an outbreak, it would be used to identify pathogens and as a source of information for the public.

The initiative, itself, is intended in part, to improve state and local health systems and their ability to cooperate with the federal government in response to a biodefense emergency. The University of Chicago’s proposal specified educating key public officials and first-line responders, as well as pledging to halt ongoing research work to assist in the event of serious regional or national needs. The plans include direct relationships with state offices and laboratories of public health as well as hospitals in the upper Midwest.

Infectious disease experts in six states are associated with the proposed Ricketts Laboratory, and they would be responsible for maintaining readiness for and responding effectively to biodefense emergencies. These experts include physicians, university faculty, and state and county health officials in the region.

Why work on something as abhorrent as biological weapons?

The RBLs do not work on bioweapons, but rather on means of detecting, preventing, or treating diseases caused by them. However, the potential that terrorists and others could bioengineer bacteria and viruses for use as weapons increases the need for additional research to develop defenses against them.