Ten Years in the Making

Editor's Note: See live progress on the construction of the new Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.
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Tour after tour. Presentation after presentation. Meeting after meeting.

It’s been a long and winding road to get to this point in time. After all those tours, presentations, meetings and testimonies before the Iowa State Legislature, the new Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) in the College of Veterinary Medicine is happening.

What was so long studied, planned and sought after is about to become a reality.

This spring, construction has begun on the first phase of the project – a $75 million structure that will begin to meet the serious infrastructure challenges faced at the VDL.

The HVAC system is outdated. So are the plumbing and electrical systems.

When it was built in 1976, the VDL was a state-of-the-art building, whose 30 faculty and staff worked on 16,000 cases a year. Today, that same facility is overcrowded with more than 160 faculty and staff and the caseload has ballooned to over 100,000 cases per year. In fact, Iowa State’s VDL sees the largest food animal caseload in the nation.

But that doesn’t even begin to highlight the issues with the current VDL. Biosafety and biocontainment issues are the primary concerns that keep Dr. Rodger Main, VDL director, up at night.

“A lot has changed in the industry since this facility was built in the ‘70s,” Main said. “The animal agriculture industry looked a lot different back then than it does now. The core of what we do hasn’t changed. The technology and the scale have changed.

“The lab’s needs and growth are simply a reflection in the changes that have happened in animal agriculture.”

After substantive facility deficiencies were noted in two independent audits of the laboratory in 2012, College of Veterinary Medicine officials knew the time had come to focus on a new diagnostic lab. A series of extensive VDL facility needs assessments and planning studies were commissioned. All reported what Main and others in the VDL knew.

A new facility was needed and the sooner the better.

A Proud History

The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State is one of the nation’s few comprehensive laboratories that encompasses the full range of specialty areas needed for today’s multi-billion animal agriculture industry as well as companion animals and wildlife.

Jammed into the College of Veterinary Medicine building and scattered throughout a number of outbuildings on the CVM campus are units that focus on pathology, bacteriology, virology, molecular diagnostics and serology, as well as expensive to maintain fields such as toxicology and areas of emerging importance such as clinical pharmacology, genetic sequencing and bioinformatics.

The laboratory’s consistent focus on excellence in clinical diagnostic service, teaching and applied research has continued despite the limitations of the current facility. Accurate, same-day test results are provided in a timely manner. The public is educated about outbreaks and other serious health concerns.

Iowa State’s VDL is not only the only full-service and fully accredited veterinary diagnostic lab in Iowa, but one of the world’s most preeminent labs.

“We are a nationally recognized center of excellence,” Main said. “Iowa State is a true national leader in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine and the citizens of Iowa and the nation benefit from what we do here.”

Over the years, a number of small-scale, temporary fixes have been made to the diagnostic lab facilities as cases and staffing grew. When the Hixson-Lied Small Animal Hospital came on-line in 2012, the old surgical suites were transformed into a state-of-the-art molecular diagnostics laboratory.

But only so many temporary fixes can be done and to maintain the international prominence the diagnostic lab had earned, VDL officials knew a new building was needed. And any new building would have to solve the biocontainment and biosafety issues as well as creating quality and a sufficient amount of space.

Moving ahead with constructing the new VDL represents a substantial step forward.

Working to a New Building

Main, Dr. Pat Halbur, executive director of the VDL and chair of the Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, and other college and university officials began making the case for a new facility.

“Pat and Rodger have made countless presentations, given tours to legislative groups, stakeholders and other without ever taking their eyes off the goal of continuing to build and maintain a world-class veterinary diagnostic laboratory that protects animal and public health while supporting and growing the livestock industry,” said Dr. Dan Grooms, the Dr. Stephen G. Juelsgaard Dean of Veterinary Medicine.

“This project would not have been possible without their dedication and the world class expertise of our faculty and staff who are the heart and soul of the facility.”

The Iowa Legislature has appropriated $63.5 million over six years (through 2024) from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. Additional funding for phase one will be provided from the VDL, the College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University and private donors.

“We started this facility infrastructure evaluation and improvement process nearly ten years ago,” Main said. “It has been a long and rewarding journey. We recognized that this was a long-term project in order to get to where we are today.

“The largest champions for the project have been the VDL’s stakeholders across all aspects of veterinary medicine and animal agriculture. They educated legislators about how the lab impacts their veterinary clinics, farming operations and local communities. They were just tremendous advocates to raise awareness of the need for a new lab across the state.”

The Iowa Veterinary Medical Association and commodity groups like the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Beef Council, Cattlemen’s Association, Cattlemen’s Foundation, Iowa Egg Council, Poultry Association and Turkey Marketing Council have each played a significant role.

These groups not only helped secure state funding for the new VDL, but have also stepped up to make lead gifts to the project. (See listing of the major donors and available naming opportunities).

“This new facility is critical for the VDL to continue providing innovative solutions and support to the complex and growing needs of animal and public health,” Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen said at the VDL groundbreaking ceremonies last October. “We are deeply grateful to the state, our industry partners and donors for their investments to make it possible.”

Work has begun on the new, stand-alone building south and west of the current laboratory site. It is anticipated the lab will open in 2023.

The New Facility

When it is completed, the new Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will include essential infrastructure and half of the needed program space.

The new lab will include receiving/accessioning, necropsy, sample processing, histopathology, bacteriology, pathology and an incinerator. Main describes these units as the laboratory’s “front-end functions.”

“The highest risk activities that deal with handling the whole animals and tissues being submitted to the lab will be in the new building,” he said.

The final product will also look vastly different than the current 1970s edition.

“The spaces are being strategically built for purpose, and are way more open and flexible than what we currently have,” Main said. “The biocontainment, biosafety and the quality and quantity of space will all be much improved.

“We’re building a building that puts us in a position to be flexible for the generations to come.”

The future includes plans for a strategically planned addition needed to enable the entirety of the VDL’s operations to be housed in this new stand-alone facility.

“We’re building as much of the lab as we can with the funding that has been afforded to support this endeavor,” Main said. “It’s a tremendous first step and will be sustainable for the long term.

“But we’re doing it in such a way that we can survive until Phase 2 comes along.”

Not Finished Yet

There will be many of the key components of the VDL that will be “left behind” in the current facility. Consistent with the findings of the preceding VDL facility needs assessment when Main, Halbur and others were first advocating for a new diagnostic lab, they were seeking funding in the amount of $125 million. While planners have worked hard to get as much as possible into the new building, critical, unmet needs will need to be addressed in the future.

Main estimates that 80% of the lab’s testing functions will continue in their current spaces. This includes molecular diagnostics, serology, virology, analytical chemistry, toxicology/pharmacology, genetic sequencing, bioinformatics, BSL-3 lab, and the VDL’s research and development functions. The VDL’s administrative staff and support functions will also continue to be housed in their current locations.

One of the downsides will be the operational limitations of having separate facilities and associated movement of samples and people between buildings, but that will be an incentive to work towards the addition.

“I worry when we move the first units into the new space, people may think that project is completed,” Main said. “Far from it.”

The new VDL is being constructed so that an already preconceived addition can be readily built on, to get all of the VDL’s operations under one roof. Main emphasizes that this multi-generational impacting investment in infrastructure aims to play a key role in safeguarding and bettering animal health, public health and the competitiveness of Iowa and U.S. animal agriculture for decades to come.

“Whether it’s developing and applying new cutting-edge diagnostic tests and strategies or identifying new emerging pathogens such as Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, this lab has set the standard for innovation in diagnostic medicine,” Grooms said.

“I can only image what our extraordinary scientists and diagnosticians can do in the facility we are getting ready to build.”

May 2021