Thanks to a $50 million investment of state funds, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) is being upgraded to a level three biosafety lab, along with being expanded through the construction of the Iberia BioInnovation Accelerator. Both of these are expected to be completed within the next two years. Together, these will further the NIRC’s ability to research, test and manufacture potentially life-saving drugs.

The NIRC is the largest non-human primate research center in the nation, specializing primarily in the research of infectious diseases. In the past, it has supported attempts to develop vaccines for HIV and SIV, as well as preventing and curing infectious diseases like the flu, RSV, Zika and Ebola.

According to Christine Payton, the communication specialist for the Office of the Vice President for Research, Innovation and Economic Development, research at the NIRC involves both graduate and undergraduate students.

“As in every research center, students researching at NIRC get to work with world-famous researchers on many novel topics,” Payton said.

Perhaps most notably, the NIRC played a role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. The primates in the NIRC were given the vaccine and observed for any side effects, such as pain, elevated temperatures and loss of appetite.     

During his 2022 State of the University speech, UL Lafayette President Joseph Savoie spoke on how the NIRC’s status as a level two biosafety lab slowed progress on the vaccine, and how that will be rectified by its upgrading to a level three biosafety lab.

“This life-saving measure was delayed because final testing for the vaccine could not occur at NIRC’s level two facility. Thanks to this investment and expansion, that will no longer be the case,” Savoie said.

Payton shared that in upgrading to a level three lab, the NIRC will begin meeting certain protocols from the Department of Health and Human Services, such as those related to personal protective equipment and respirators, as well as expanding the building itself. She also spoke further on the benefits of the upgrade.

“Now, bio level three, they can handle infectious diseases and get to the marketplace quicker. And that means saving lives,” Payton said. “And that’s the global impact of that, that’s the mission of the research office or the research enterprise at UL: to solve real world problems through applied research. This is a perfect example of that public impact research.”

The other key part of the expansion is the BioInnovation Accelerator, which will allow the NIRC to not only do research, but to also begin manufacturing pharmaceuticals.

“It’s going to take that research to testing, to manufacturing, and then to the marketplace,” Payton said. “So the research and the data that’s collected at NIRC will go to the BioInnovation Accelerator and be manufactured in the accelerator.”

The BioInnovation Accelerator will be built next to the NIRC, and everything from the research stage to the manufacturing stage can happen on the same road.

“The research and the data will happen at NIRC, and then the manufacturing and the delivery to the market will happen just right down the road. And this is all happening right here on our campus in New Iberia. That’s pretty incredible,” Payton said.

Payton spoke on the economic and job-creating impact that these projects have on the area, the expectation of the creation of 550 new jobs and the momentousness of this moment in the history of the university.

“This is really a new economic sector, an economic driver for Iberia Parish,” Payton said. “This was huge, this was a historic announcement for sure not just for the university, but also for Iberia Parish.”

Rendering of new Biosafety Level three building at the Research Center.