Some of the most common questions we hear as U.S. Department of Agriculture employees working for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility are about the location: Why is NBAF being built in Kansas or why in the middle of cattle country?

For those of you who weren’t living here 15 years ago, the idea was planted in 2006 when Manhattan applied to be the site where NBAF would be built. Three years later in 2009, Manhattan was officially selected to be the home of this next-generation science facility.

So why build it here? Well, let me explain. This is a prime location for the government to establish partnerships with two other sectors that are heavily-invested in animal health — academia and industry. Protecting our food supply and animal health is a critical national security priority but the science cannot be done without establishing strong collaborations. Working with other professionals and scientists, NBAF employees will create strong partnerships to fight animal diseases.

We hope these partnerships will be ripe with diversity, creativity and passion for protecting agriculture — the industry that feeds and clothes us all.

While it should come as little surprise to readers in this area, Kansas State University’s land-grant mission has certainly influenced the agriculture industry’s progress. The basic research conducted in academic institutions has helped expand understanding of pathogens — leading to innovations like vaccines and diagnostic tests. It is that successful history that will provide an excellent asset to partnerships with similar goals to fight livestock diseases.

Another benefit of this Midwest location is the proximity to industry partners. Manhattan is situated on the western edge of the Animal Health Corridor, which has the highest concentration of animal health industries in the nation. It makes sense that these companies have set up shop in the middle of agricultural production and close to their customers. These for-profit companies have the means to produce and deliver marketable animal health products straight to veterinarians and ranchers.

With the first U.S. biosafety level-4 containment laboratories capable of holding large livestock, NBAF is already unique. But another first in the animal health arena is NBAF’s Biologics Development Module, or BDM. It is a proof-of-concept facility that will take NBAF’s basic research and turn it into applied science like vaccines and other disease countermeasures. The BDM will help form industry partnerships that we hope can take research on disease-fighting products to prevent animal disease outbreaks around the world.

According to Steve Witte, NBAF Biologics Development Module director, the BDM will bring the expertise in knowing what makes a great marketable vaccine and guide researchers down a path toward that reality. The BDM will help those industries determine if a product could be produced within a reasonable cost and timeframe.

“If we could make a vaccine to prevent any disease but it costs $1 million per dose to produce, that’s not really affordable,” Witte said. “Industry will not be able to sell a vaccine that costly and the government will not be able to use it to respond to a disease incursion. One of the goals at the BDM will be to show industry partners that we can make a vaccine at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time so they will be confident in taking on that process.”

The entire research and development process can happen inside the biosafety confines of NBAF — even product efficiency testing.

“We will be able to safely test products that fight foreign animal disease in a manner that a lot of companies are not able to do because they don’t have facilities with the highest level of containment features and protocols,” Witte said.

From advising researchers and small-scale production to testing and scaled-up production processes, the BDM team will work to provide industry partners with step-by-step instructions to fight foreign and emerging animal diseases in large livestock. While the BDM is still in the planning stages, Witte’s goal for the module is to be a national asset to quickly mitigate any potential outbreak around the world.

“While the mission of NBAF is to focus on foreign animal diseases, the BDM will be able to work with industry partners to make countermeasures available to fight diseases across the nation and around the world, so those diseases don’t come here to the United States,” Witte said.

Establishing diverse collaborations among researchers will strengthen the nation’s response to animal diseases. Though the BDM represents a small part of NBAF’s capabilities, it will help speed up the time it takes for a product to go from research to the hands of people who are on the frontlines of the fight against animal diseases.

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