A Premier NIH Facility for Biomedical Research
Some 3,000 feet higher above sea level than the National Institutes of Health (NIH) familiar brick campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and a 5-hour, 2,300-mile plane ride northwest of that point, lies Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML). RML is an NIH state-of-the-art biomedical research facility in Hamilton, Montana, a small but thriving community nestled between the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains.
A key component of NIAID’s Division of Intramural Research, RML is perhaps best known for its research into vector-borne diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever, and Lyme disease—three illnesses caused by microbes whose names pay tribute to the former RML scientists who discovered them.
Since 1928, when the landmark facility was constructed—and two decades before that when its scientists worked out of makeshift cabins and tents—RML has played a key role in our nation's health and well-being by focusing its talent and resources on the infectious disease threats of the day. One hundred years ago, that meant helping overcome the scourge of "black measles," which was striking down settlers in Western Montana's Bitterroot Valley at an alarming rate. Today, it means grappling with more confounding health issues, such as coronavirus, influenza, prion diseases, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Moreover, its proven history in the study of exotic illnesses—and the ability of its researchers to quicky investigate newly emerging infectious diseases—make RML eminently positioned to play a central role in conducting research that could help safeguard the public against infectious disease threats, including a possible bioterror attack.
RML is not a clinical facility in which researchers study the effects of experimental drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics on patients and healthy volunteers. Rather, you could say that the basic research conducted at RML makes clinical research possible. By focusing on the molecular traits of a given microbe—namely, what the microbe is composed of and how it behaves in its environment—scientists can ascertain the most effective targets for fighting that microbe and, from there, developing chemicals that could detect, treat, and generate an immune response against it for further study.
The research programs at RML are organized into three broad laboratories. Each laboratory has a chief and various research groups that study specific infectious diseases, like COVID-19 Lyme disease, tularemia, salmonella, prion diseases, and tickborne encephalitis viruses. RML encompasses roughly 30 buildings on 36 acres of land and employs about 450 people.
In addition, the RML Integrated Research Facility, which opened in 2008, is the first NIH facility of its kind to house BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4 laboratory space in one building, along with scientific support, administrative offices and conference rooms. The facility—constructed to the most rigorous of engineering standards to create a safe and secure work environment—enables researchers to study priority pathogens related to biodefense, labeled as Category A, B, or C agents by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other resources on the RML campus include core facilities that house state-of-the-art technologies for use by NIAID researchers in Hamilton, as well as Bethesda. The Genomics Research Section provides cutting-edge technology and consultation to researchers in the areas of gene sequencing and gene expression. Researchers receive results rapidly and in an easy-to-understand format that enables them to quickly determine potential vaccine and diagnostic candidates.
The Microscopy Unit offers expertise and instrumentation in light, electron and confocal microscopy. RML microscopy staff prepare and analyze samples in a variety of ways, from labeling cellular organelles, to highlighting the exquisite surface detail of a microbe, to identifying surface antigens on that microbe. Cryo-EM capabilities allows near atomic resolution of viruses and proteins. Work performed at RML has been featured on the covers of numerous prestigious scientific journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Virology, and Nature.
That a biomedical research facility the size and technological sophistication of RML is located in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley offers Montanans unique access to the utmost in collaborative, educational, and employment opportunities with world-renowned scientists. And for NIH scientists, RML provides a truly exceptional place to live, study, and conduct pioneering research that could one day lead to a cure for some of the world’s most formidable infectious diseases.