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University of Chicago suspends research in lab after scientist gets a skin infection

Updated: November 10, 2011 10:21AM

University of Chicago has suspended research in one of its labs after a scientist contracted a skin infection from a bacteria being studied there, university officials said Wednesday.

The unidentified female scientist, who was studying the B. cereus bacteria that can cause food poisoning, was admitted Aug. 27 to the U. of C. Medical Center.

She had surgery to remove the infected tissue and after treatment with antibiotics, was released, university officials said.

No one else has gotten sick, and the incident at the Cummings Life Science Center posed no risk to the campus or community, as the bacteria is not transmitted through the air or from human to human, officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and state and local health agencies were notified.

“We assessed there was a very small possibility the contaminant had gotten out of the room,” said Conrad Gilliam, dean of research and graduate education in the school’s biological science division. “As an added precaution, this particular agent and all others at that biosafety level have been moved off site to Argonne, pending decontamination and a thorough review of protocol.”

The incident raised the specter of an incident two years ago, when a U. of C. researcher studying the origins of plague-causing bacteria — in a different lab in the same building — contracted the disease and died. Molecular genetics professor Malcolm J. Casadaban, 60, had been investigating a weakened strain of Yersinia pestis when he contracted the infection and died on Sept. 13, 2009.

U. of C. officials quickly stressed there were significant differences between the two incidents.

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