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Summer 2000
The Hot Zone
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For the past three years, Layne and Beugelsdijk have been working to generate a sufficient critical mass of interest to turn the automated laboratories into a reality. In September 1998, the two researchers published an article in Nature Biotechnology explaining the automated-laboratory concept and its potential for infectious-disease research and beating the bioterrorist. In an accompanying editorial, the Nature editors called the idea "an attempt at creating a coordinated plan for dealing with big problems - like biological warfare - that require big biological solutions" and suggested that it's time for the biotechnology industry, the medical community and the various governments to get on the bandwagon. The editorial characterized the existing U.S. government plans as the "equivalent of having the citizenry rush to their basements and throw their arms up over their heads during a nuclear war," and the Layne and Beugelsdijk proposal as the kind of plan that has "at least a chance of being effective."

In April 1999, Layne, Beugelsdijk and C. Kumar Patel, then vice chancellor for research at UCLA, hosted a two-day workshop at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., titled "Automation in Threat Reduction and Infectious Disease Research: Needs and New Directions." A book on the meeting will be published this year by the National Academy Press. Layne has also been given permission by UCLA to approach foundations for the $20 million to $30 million in funding required to build one laboratory, ideally for influenza, as a proof of principle - put together the modules, design the software and the database - and then start the design on more laboratories.

"What we really need are dual-use labs that can deal with natural outbreaks and mitigate malicious acts," says Layne. "We'll never know if lightning will strike, and a lot of people now say it's not a matter of if, but when. The conclusion I've come to is the same as most experts in this field: By the time there is a bioterrorist event in this country, it's too late to prepare for it. We will need to act fast to save lives. These labs will give us the ability to do that." Los Angeles writer Gary Taubes is a contributing editor to Discover magazine.

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