George Mason University's receipt of a $25 million grant last week to build a lab on its Prince William campus signals the school's increased stature in scientific research and boosts the county's profile as a center of biotechnology, university and county officials said.
"It recognizes that, to use the vernacular, George Mason plays with the big boys," said Thomas Hennessey, the university's chief of staff.
At the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, which will cost $42 million to construct on 83,000 square feet on the Manassas campus, researchers will study infectious diseases and pathogens, such as anthrax, that could be used in terrorist attacks.
The $25 million grant is the largest in the university's history.
The relatively young university has been dogged in its attempts to establish itself in bioscience, and on Thursday won the grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The application was filed by George Mason's National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases.
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) said the county can truly say that it is a "center of life science."
GMU's campus is at the Innovation@Prince William business park, which the county and university have promoted as a biotechnology hub. The new lab could draw more corporate tenants to Innovation, Connaughton said.
The lab could break ground in a year and be completed in five years under requirements of the grant, said Charles Bailey, executive director of the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases.
GMU saw the grant as its chance to expand, said Jerry Coughter, director of life sciences management and project coordinator of the university's application for the grant.
"Everybody liked the idea of research, but no one wanted to pay for the building," he said. "We were in the process of trying to figure out how we could finance a building for our biodefense research" when the National Institutes of Health announced grant money was available.
Hennessey said George Mason's infancy and size gave it an advantage. Research has become interdisciplinary, with scientists of varying specialties collaborating on projects -- a method of research that George Mason was forced to conduct because of its limited resources.
"It's in recognition of something George Mason has done for a while," Hennessey said. "By being a young university, we had to focus on interdisciplinary research. . . . It has now become the way to research."
The sophisticated lab will allow better experimentations on rodents, rabbits and monkeys that will be exposed to diseases and pathogens so treatments and vaccines can be developed, Coughter said.
"Really, what you are trying to do is see if you can keep the animals alive," he said.
The grant application called for the addition of three research scientists, including a virologist and veterinarian, Coughter said.
The grant will be matched with about $15 million from George Mason and $2.5 million from Virginia to purchase the land.