Inside the University of Calgary’s New Germ-Free Lab

The facility focuses on microbiome research. Keeping it germ-free is a process that includes superheated steam and air showers before entering.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY

A short elevator ride and walk down a nondescript basement hallway at the University of Calgary Foothills campus leads to a wholly ordinary door. The unremarkable entrance to the university’s newest research facility belies the significance of what lies beyond, the largest academic germ-free lab in the world.

The labyrinthine facility is completely free of the bacteria, spores and viruses present most everywhere else on the planet. A part of the recently created International Microbiome Centre (IMC) the lab is one of just a few dozen worldwide. It will allow scientists to study the microbiome, the ecosystem of trillions of microbes living inside our bodies, and deepen their understanding of how it impacts human health.

IMC director Kathy McCoy was brought to the U of C for her experience setting up similar centres at McMaster University and in Switzerland. She says medical researchers are only beginning to understand all the ways that the microbiome impacts health.

“We know that the microbiome is hugely powerful to drive our health, but also that when things go wrong, it can drive disease,” says McCoy. “Every single chronic inflammatory disease that is known to man is associated with an altered microbiome.”

Researchers will work with germ-free lab mice housed in dozens of isolator chambers. McCoy says the power of the germ-free facility is the capacity to add back carefully selected bacteria to the animals and study their effects.

“We really want to understand how can we use the microbiome to help prevent, cure or treat chronic disease,” says McCoy. “So now in order to harness all this power we need to understand the mechanisms.”

Building the lab to ensure it remains free of normally ubiquitous microbes presented a serious challenge. The facility’s various rooms are ventilated with filtered air and kept at a positive air pressure to keep all other air out. Architect Russell Chernoff of Chernoff Thompson Architects says he was excited to work on such a cutting-edge facility.

“It requires extreme attention to detail given the germ-free environment,” says Chernoff. “The design people through to the constructors have to be very disciplined about what they do.”

Any equipment, tools and even the mouse food that enters the lab undergoes at least a 30-minute blast of superheated steam to kill any microbes. More delicate items spend the night in an “air shower” and are then wiped down with ethanol.

The only thing allowed in that isn’t completely germ-free are the people who work in it. To minimize the risk of contamination researchers must shower, wash and condition their hair (contaminants don’t stick as easily to silky smooth hair), don sterile surgical scrubs, a hairnet, face mask and coveralls before entering the lab. Stepping out for a bathroom break requires going through the whole process again before reentering.

The lab harnesses the U of C’s specialized expertise in live cell imaging, which uses powerful microscopes to observe individual cells, allowing researchers to track how various bacteria interact with the animals’ bodies.

“We’re going to be the only ones in the world that will be able to image in a germ-free animal,” says McCoy.

It is also equipped with special lights that when turned on bathe the stacks of isolators in a red glow. Mice can’t see red light thereby allowing researchers to work in the area without disrupting the mice’s circadian rhythm.

“Every cage has little houses for the animals, they’re also red so they can go in and think they’re in a nice dark secluded place, but it’s actually red see through so we can go in and check to make sure they’re all okay,” says McCoy.

The centre officially opened on November 9, 2017.

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