The local community should not be concerned with research being done at West Liberty University on the Francisella tularensis bacterium, as professor Joseph Horzempa and his students are studying a weakened form of the bacterium, Horzempa said.
West Liberty officials said some local residents expressed concern following a Nov. 18 story in the Sunday News-Register about Horzempa's research. The professor assured that all his research is being done under the guidelines of the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and there is no cause for concern.
Horzempa said the weakened version of Francisella tularensis being studied is not a health threat.
"We do not have a virulent form of Francisella tularensis here at West Liberty," Horzempa said. "We work with the LVS strain which is an attenuated (weakened) form of the bacterium that is not a serious health threat. This organism is exempt from the select agent list of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture.
"Strain LVS can be safely used in the existing facilities at West Liberty since this organism is not virulent and is not a select agent."
Horzempa said the dangerous version of the bacterium will be researched by his team at a lab at the University of Pittsburgh where full precautions will be taken.
Horzempa first became interested in this bacterium during his time as a post-doctoral research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2006. He was the first person to discover that the bacterium could invade human red blood cells, a significant find since scientists know of only a handful of bacteria that can do so.
"We are in the process of forming a collaborations/consortium agreement with the University of Pittsburgh Regional Biocontainment Laboratory in which their staff, at their BSL-3 facility, will conduct experiments using the select agent F. tularensis strains," he said.
Horzempa noted the research will adhere to institutional and federal guidelines regarding select agents, including but not limited to background checks, enhanced security, proper containment of the organism and adherence to CDC regulations.