Safety procedures under review at Boston U. medical labs

BOSTON — Sophisticated genetic fingerprinting confirmed that a laboratory experiment was the source of a bacterial infection that sickened a graduate student on Boston University’s medical campus, city disease investigators said Nov. 9.

The genetic tests compared a blood sample from the researcher with bacterial matter recovered from the lab where he was working, the Boston Globe reported.

“The bottom line,’’ said Dr. Anita Barry, top disease tracker at the Boston Public Health Commission, “is they matched.’’

The analysis erased any doubt about what caused the researcher to become sick last month and intensified investigations into precisely how he was exposed to Neisseria meningitidis, which can cause meningitis.

The city’s biological lab safety division will review safety procedures in BU’s medical labs, to ensure that the school is doing everything possible to minimize researchers’ exposure to pathogens, Barry said. Investigators will examine what kind of protective gear the researcher was wearing, what kind of training he received, and how thoroughly he was supervised, Barry said.

The city strengthened its regulation of labs after three BU scientists became infected with tularemia in 2004, an episode that revealed sloppy lab practices and a failure to report those illnesses in a timely fashion.

This time, the university has pledged to operate transparently, promising to share findings of an internal investigation with scientists across the university and even researchers at other schools.

“We want others to learn if there are ways we identify that this could be prevented,’’ said Ara Tahmassian, associate vice president for research compliance at Boston University School of Medicine.

The infection of the researcher, who has recovered, came at an awkward moment for BU.

A federal health agency is conducting what is probably the final safety review of a controversial $200 million lab project the university has built to work with the world’s deadliest agents, including Ebola and plague.

The centerpiece of that project, a high-security Biosafety Level-4 lab, is in a completed but unoccupied. The exposure of the graduate student happened in a building next door to the contentious project. He was participating in the hunt for a vaccine against the form of meningitis caused by the germ.

The researcher was working in a Biosafety Level-2 lab, which has less stringent safety procedures than Level-4 labs.