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Lifetimes of Research Went Down the Drain


NEW ORLEANS -- As the waters from Hurricane Katrina receded a year ago, they left a once-thriving medical-research establishment in shambles, much of it irretrievably lost.

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 30 -- As the waters from Hurricane Katrina receded a year ago, they left a once-thriving medical-research establishment in a shambles, much of it irretrievably gone.

For many researchers here, a life's work was lost in a few days.

The product of years or decades of research that Katrina's winds failed to destroy succumbed to the floods that followed. Records, equipment, laboratories, and samples were swept away forever.

The storm killed both the main power source and backup generators at Tulane University, causing the loss of frozen blood and tissue samples, cell lines, mice, fruit flies, yeasts, and bacterial cultures.

Louisiana State University alone lost an estimated 8,000 animals used in various research projects. Animals that didn't drown either perished for lack of food and water from days or weeks being left unattended, or had to be euthanized.

Among the greatest losses were blood and urine samples collected for the Bogalusa Heart Study, a landmark project focused on understanding the early natural history of coronary artery disease and essential hypertension in both white and African-American children.

"It's irreplaceable," said Paul Whelton, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane University Medical Center. "That's decades of research. It makes you want to cry."

Even those centers that weathered the storm suffered losses in the form of study participants scattered across the nation, many of whom are unlikely ever to return here, all lost to follow-up.

"We lost about 20% of our patients," said Robert Perrillo, M.D. "We still don't know where these people are."

Dr. Perrillo is also counted among New Orleans' missing. The former head of gastroenterology and hepatology at Ochsner moved his research west to Dallas, where he is associate director of hepatology at Baylor University Medical Center.

Tyler J. Curiel, M.D., now head of the San Antonio Cancer Institute in San Antonio, is another New Orleans expatriate. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, he and his wife, Ruth Berrgren, M.D., both then on the faculty of Tulane Medical School, cared for patients in the dank and fetid confines of the Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans, before being forced to evacuate as the flood waters rose.

Dr. Curiel and a colleague tried valiantly to save as many research samples as possible, racing against time as first the main power, and then the backup generators failed in both the laboratory quarters and the adjoining medical building.

They counted on the staying power of liquid nitrogen to keep their most precious samples safe in freezers that were surrounded by temperatures topping 100 degrees. They hadn't finished the job, however, when they were forced by gun-toting guards to evacuate.

But with the aid of private aviation companies and donated supplies, Dr. Curiel, armed with a list of the highest priority projects identified by the National Institutes of Health and other research supporters, came back to stage a heroic rescue attempt to preserve as many of the most important research items as possible.

One particularly precious item that they managed to save was a rare tumor cell line that hard been started by Andy Martin, a third-year medical student working in Dr. Curiel's lab. Martin had derived the cell line from the tumor that eventually killed him: sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. The Tulane researchers, like their colleagues all across the city, reluctantly left behind several lifetimes' worth of work.

In an interview last September Dr. Curiel said that he was luckier than most researchers, in that his staff foresaw the possibility of a power loss from the approaching storm as early as Friday, Aug. 26; the Hurricane made landfall in New Orleans on Monday the 29th.

"There's a large research community at Tulane, and part of the research involves taking samples from patients and keeping them frozen for use for research later," he said "For instance, there are studies where a patient's blood is drawn for a period of up to 40 years and you can go back and do research tests and see how a patient has changed over time, and these are really invaluable research assets."

There were other success stories. Across Lake Ponchartrain in Covington, La., there were no reported escapes of animals at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, an infectious disease research facility.

The primate center, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world, was severely battered by Katrina but was up and running, with auxiliary power supplied by a diesel generator to the tune of ,000 a week in fuel costs, in the weeks following the storm.

But back in New Orleans, authorities weren't taking any chances. To ensure that the storm didn't spawn an outbreak of infectious disease, state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard, M.D., aided by a state police escort, reportedly broke into a biosafety lab and used bleach to destroy potentially dangerous, unspecified pathogens. It had to be done, Dr. Ratard reported. He declined to name the infectious agents in question.

After Katrina had passed, the CDC reported that area defense laboratories that housed pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola virus, while sustaining some minor damage, were all intact, and did not suffer security breaches.

Many of the research facilities closed by Katrina, including the research and teaching facilities at Tulane and at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center are open once more, but with smaller faculties and more penurious research budgets. At LSU, for example, about one-fourth of NIH-funded faculty members are gone, although NIH funding for the schools has remained steady.

Of the million in research funds that LSU has lost over the last year, approximately half was due to the loss of payments to from halted clinical trials, according to a university official.

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