- As rising floodwaters swamped New Orleans, Louisiana's
chief epidemiologist enlisted state police on a mission to break into a
high-security government lab and destroy any dangerous germs before they
could escape or fall into the wrong hands. Armed with bolt cutters and
bleach, Dr. Raoult Ratard's team entered the state's so-called "hot
lab," and killed all the living samples. "This is what had to
be done," said Ratard, who matter-of-factly put a sudden end to his
lab's work on dangerous germs, which he wouldn't name.
- At least Ratard's team was able to retrieve laptop computers
containing vital scientific data. Many other scientists in the region weren't
so fortunate, losing years of research, either through storm damage or
voluntary destruction. Not since the torrential floods from Tropical Storm
Allison, which badly damaged the Texas Medical Center in 2001, has scientific
research been disrupted on such a large scale. Doctors and researchers
in the Crescent City became exiles overnight, indefinitely locked out of
their labs and unable to see patients.
- Thousands of laboratory animals many genetically engineered
with human diseases like cancer and painstakingly bred and cared for perished
along with vital tissue samples thawed in abandoned labs. Important work
on heart disease, cancer, AIDS and a host of other ailments may be lost
forever to scientists at Tulane and Louisiana State universities' medical
schools in New Orleans. LSU lost all of its 8,000 lab animals, including
mice, rats, dogs and monkeys.
- Many drowned. Others died without food and water and
the rest were euthanized, said Dr. Larry Hollier, dean of the LSU Health
Sciences Center School of Medicine. About 300 federally funded projects
at New Orleans colleges and universities worth more than $150 million including
153 projects at Tulane were affected in some way, according to an initial
survey by the National Institutes of Health.
- One of the biggest blows is the likely destruction of
frozen urine and blood samples from thousands of patients enrolled in the
Bogalusa Heart Study, the world's longest-running racial study of risk
factors for heart disease. Samples collected and frozen since 1973 thawed
out when the hurricane knocked out electricity and backup generators failed
at a Tulane lab in New Orleans. "It's irreplaceable. That's decades
of research," aid Dr. Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health
sciences at Tulane.
- "It makes you want to cry." If the blood and
urine samples are damaged or contaminated, future tests can't be done using
them. However, Bogalusa's chief researcher, Tulane cardiologist Dr. Gerald
Berenson said he had analyzed much of the data already collected and saved
it on his computer, which was not damaged. "The Bogalusa Heart Study
will go on," said Berenson who visited New Orleans, but not his lab,
on Tuesday. "We'll just have to pick up the pieces from what we have."
Tulane cancer specialist Dr. Tyler Curiel was one of the few researchers
who decided to ride out the hurricane in New Orleans in an effort to salvage
decades worth of research.
- After the storm passed, Curiel spent the first few days
transferring vials from broken freezers to liquid nitrogen tanks with the
help of a flashlight.. He later fled to his in-laws' house in Denver and
then returned to his lab for a day, grabbing whatever he could in an effort
to save blood and tissue samples from an ongoing ovarian cancer project.
But he had to leave most of his experiments behind. "This is a dramatic
blow to our research," said Curiel, who plans to temporarily relocate
his lab to the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
- "My researchers are scattered across the country
and our facilities are still contaminated." One thin silver lining
to all the lab damage: It appears that no deadly diseases were released
from the area's "hot labs," where researchers routinely handle
and store some of the world's most dangerous germs.
- In Covington, just north of New Orleans, Tulane's high-security
National Primate Research Center reported only minor damage and said none
of its 5,000 research animals escaped. Ratard, the state epidemiologist,
said the lab he returned to appeared undamaged and untouched by looters.
- He wouldn't disclose what germs the laboratory was working
on when Katrina struck. All the labs in Katrina's path that handle bioweapons
defense research involving pathogens such as anthrax reported to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention that their security wasn't compromised,
according to CDC spokesman Von Roebuck. "A few reported minor damage,
but there was no issue of escape."
- Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.