Case Study: Athena Mobile Laboratories: A Partnership for Scientific Progress

MRI Global Athena Lab - Wide

Few endeavors are as universally necessary to our collective health and well-being as that of continued scientific discovery. Without those working in the trenches to study everything from vaccine development to disease eradication, and many challenges in between, our future would be filled with even more risk and uncertainty than it is today. 

When the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak struck Guinea in West Africa in 2013, their lack of public health infrastructures led to the largest Ebola virus outbreak to date. After the EVD outbreak was declared a public health emergency in 2014 by the World Health Organization (WHO), the closest high containment laboratory was ­­miles away in Nigeria and was unable to quickly assist. The United States’ Department of Defense searched for labs that would enable localized testing with rapid sample turn-around time. The DOD reached out to MRIGlobal to create a solution before this epidemic became a pandemic. The result: mobile labs – bringing the lab and staff to Africa. 

This example represents just one macro app­­lication that is a byproduct of many micro applications. And while the need for this sort of aptitude and technology is a global one, access to the resources they require isn’t as universal. From villages in Africa to army bases on U.S. soil, that issue of access becomes paramount… especially when time is of the essence. 

Athena Mobile Lab Interior

About Athena: Why Mobile Labs, and Why This One?

Mobile laboratories are not a new concept. These modular labs are often deployed to remote locations, such as Africa for Ebola testing, remote sites in the US for COVID testing or even alongside our military. MRIGlobal has been a pioneer in this technology for years. 

Athena is designed differently and specifically for work in remote locations, while offering increased protection for researchers and scientific equipment. MRIGlobal engineered the Athena line with a unique, expandable design that can drastically increase researcher space with an easy to operate turning lever, as there is usually no power when they are dropped in the field. 

Expanding the mobile lab using the mechanical crank

“MRIGlobal’s designs are capable of containing biohazardous materials just as a permanent high containment laboratory would provide, keeping researchers safe in all sorts of remote locations – whether in a major metropolis, or remote Africa,” Labconco’s Director of Biosafety Products David Wasescha said, “science is continually expanding outside the walls of a normal/fixed lab, so this portability helps bring research and diagnostic capabilities close to the source to help contain an outbreak.” 

According to MRIGlobal’s Program Manager Jay Mansheim, the platform is custom built to eliminate the typical limitations involved when converting a shipping container into a lab. That means a more robust structural design, better insulation and a more ergonomic environment thanks to the expansion capabilities. 

When extended, Athena provides a whopping 82 percent more floor space and 40 percent more laboratory bench space than a previous model, while maintaining ISO shipping container specifications when retracted, boosting portability. 

Lab space being used for sample preparation, lyophilization

“There are many ISO container sized mobile shelters on the market, but they were not designed to be a laboratory and lack many of the features necessary to run sensitive laboratory equipment in a deployed environment,” Mansheim said. “The Athena Mobile Laboratory was designed from the ground up to provide these instruments with the environment they require to operate, while furnishing the analysts working inside a safe, convenient, and comfortable workspace. This includes providing enough sturdy bench space to hold the instruments, ample light, conditioned air, and enough of the proper outlets to power it all. The flat floor, not common in expanding shelters, allows rolling tables and racks to be reconfigured, adapting the space to the specific work and workers. The entire structure is sturdy enough to provide vibration sensitive equipment a safe place to operate and rugged enough to be redeployed to many locations for years to come.” 

Mansheim says these carefully constructed design features help Athena have the capability to “respond to infectious disease outbreaks anywhere in the world, while offering protection from harsh environmental conditions.” 

Athena has recently been deployed domestically. When the US Army needed to test nearly 4,000 soldiers for COVID-19 prior to sending them for training, they opted to utilize three Athena Mobile Laboratories on the base. Rather than waiting days for test results to come back the traditional way, soldiers had their results back in just a few hours. 

Thoughtfully Engineered to be More Than Your Typical Mobile Lab

From military leaders testing soldiers on domestic soil to doctors triaging patients in remote villages abroad, the value of getting trained laboratory professionals rapidly set up to process samples locally, quickly and accurately is a clear improvement to older processes. Access to mobile facilities with quick response times can be immeasurably important in times of crisis. 

But just because it’s important doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. 

Exterior view of Athena Mobile Lab on trailer

“Despite the spacious room provided by the Athena lab design, it still faces the hurdles of a normal mobile lab,” Wasescha said. “The logistics of deploying a mobile lab are complex. Each of these labs need to be transportable by truck to its final destination, and sometimes these labs have to be shipped by sea or flown in. Their design footprint must be small enough to comply with ocean and air cargo limitations. 

Biosafety containment capabilities with Labconco Logic+ Biosafety Cabinet

The laboratory also experiences normal ‘shipping’ factors, like bumps/jostles on the way to the destination. Our products are designed to withstand tougher rides so they can be used right after arrival. The last thing you want to find out is that you have shipped this complicated biocontainment laboratory around the world, only to find out that everything inside was damaged in route. This all has to be done without compromising lab containment abilities or disrupting workflows of the technicians operating in the space. Our products are flexible with their exhaust requirements, and have a lower overall height while remaining comfortable and safe to use.” 

And that everything is quite substantial. MRIGlobal regularly utilizes Labconco’s Logic+ Class II Type A2 Biosafety Cabinets in their mobile labs. These enclosures protect users while keeping samples free of contamination in high containment settings, making them excellent tools for the safe processing of samples such as Ebola or SARS-CoV-2. Athena labs are flexible, and other Labconco products utilized in Athena labs often include CentriVap Centrifugal Concentrators, FreeZone Freeze Dryers, WaterPro Water Purification Systems and more. 

Outside of its high degree of containment and safety, a primary difference between Athena and other mobile labs on the market is that many others are multi-function structures that are built to serve as an office or living quarters. 

Large space for bench top freeze dryers, evoporators, water purificaiton systems and other bench top laboratory equipment

“The Athena Mobile Lab was designed and built from the ground up to function as a highly customizable laboratory, which presents very specific challenges,” Mansheim says. “It can be outfitted with a wide selection of state-of-the-art sample preparation, containment and analytical capabilities for chemistry, biological or mechanical testing. Many of its key design features highlight our commitment to developing the best mobile laboratory solution, including its expanding floorplan, flat aluminum floor with integrated tie-downs, variable capacity HVAC, configurable electrical backup, and lighting and ceiling cable management.” 

Exterior of Athena Mobile Lab with expansion extended

A Kansas City Partnership with Global Impact

Both based in Kansas City, Missouri, Labconco and MRIGlobal have decades-long histories serving scientific needs across the globe. Some of that history has been working in tandem. 

“We have collaborated for years on product designs,” Wasescha said. “Labconco has supplied MRIGlobal with scientific products to get their work done. When MRIGlobal started supplying specialized mobile laboratories for field deployment, notably with labs going to Africa for the Ebola crisis, Labconco responded to outfit those projects with Class II BSCs to keep researchers safe. With COVID, more mobile testing was needed... so MRIGlobal produced additional testing facilities for mobile deployment in rapid fashion. We worked hard to get the biosafety cabinets made for MRIGlobal, provide support, and ensure they were prepared with reliable products to successfully deploy their testing capabilities.” 

Wasescha says MRIGlobal has continually come back to work with Labconco not merely because the company is local; it is also because the flexibility and selection of Labconco’s products fit a variety of scientific needs and come with excellent application support. 

“One of the things MRIGlobal does well is that they are masters in the technology and flexibility of what they design,” Wasescha said. “The reliability of the equipment we are able to deliver, and the application support we provide, ensures the high containment conditions of these laboratories are well supported.” 

Additional benchtop space for work are, desk

Mansheim echoes these sentiments.

“Many of the markets Labconco is working in are those that we’re also working to engage, so we saw a shared opportunity for alignment,” he said. “When Athena is in the field, our focus is on conducting research and delivering high quality results. When we’re not in the field, we can take the opportunity to capture its customization with diagnostic equipment.”

Ultimately, though different companies with unique specialties, both Labconco and MRIGlobal care deeply about the end solution they deliver to scientists and those in the field. They realize the risks associated with public health research, and they take extreme care in developing solutions to facilitate that research. MRIGlobal and Labconco continue to work together to create some of the most important, innovative containment labs in the world. 

View of large interior workspace

“We’re two Kansas City companies doing all we can to support science,” Wasescha said. “With globalization making collaboration increasingly easy between companies far away, this is proof that connecting and working with a trusted local partner can achieve remarkable results.” 

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