The Little Lab That Could

December 13, 2002

Heather Heilman

"We never say no," said William George. "We never say we can't try. Sometimes we try and we're not able, but that's not very often."

George, professor of pharmacology, is the director the department's toxicology division and the Tulane Drug Analysis Laboratory (TDAL). As his brainchild, the Tulane Drug Analysis Lab was founded in 1977 in an effort to provide not just clinical and research services to the New Orleans medical community, but forensic toxicological services as well. He's proud of the lab, which is capable of finding almost any foreign compound anywhere in the body.

"We can do analytical testing for drugs and chemicals in basically any body tissue," he said. "Within hours, we can develop a new test to address an issue."

With a creative and experienced staff and instrumentation not found in most drug-testing labs, they can find things others can't. It is only lab in town that offers a "club drug panel," testing for many of the date-rape drugs or club-scene drugs such as GHB, rohypnol, ketamine, and ecstasy.

While their bread and butter is doing drug testing for government agencies and private industry, they also do therapeutic drug monitoring for area hospitals and clinical researchers. The capable and well- equipped facility was one of the factors that brought the federally funded General Clinical Research Center and AIDS drug trials to New Orleans. And the group's willingness to try anything has led it into the field of environmental toxicology.

Since 1995, it has been analyzing the quality of water in the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., to the Gulf of Mexico.

"I was at a meeting where someone mentioned the need for better testing of the quality of water in the Mississippi River, and I said, 'We can do that.' We can test anything that's in the water. So we did it," George said. "We look for everything. We have 700 different parametersdrugs, nutrients, metals, pesticides, petroleum products, mineralsyou name it."

Besides acquiring their own data, TDAL researchers gathered and validated all available data on water quality in the river since 1960, and put it all together in the Mississippi River Water Quality Database Project, which unites Tulane researchers from pharmacology, structural and cellular biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, computer science and engineering. Water quality in the river is better than he would have guessed, George said.

"We've not found anything that exceeds drinking water standards established by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]," he said. "You don't have to worry about drinking the water."

His group has since branched out into looking at the water in Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone, and other regional water bodies. They do testing for water purification facilities in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, and they've been working with William Hartley, associate professor of environmental health sciences, in his mercury studies. They have begun testing for mercury not only in the water in local streams and bayous, but in the sediment.

"We're testing people and finding mercury in their blood, but we might not find it in the water," said project coordinator Jeff Mendler. "So we're looking at the sediment. The idea is that bugs eat the sediment, shrimp eat the bugs, fish eat the shrimp and people eat the fish."

Mercury is generally harmless for adults but can cause birth defects and developmental problems in children. Of course, in toxicology, dose is the key.

"Too much of anything will hurt you," George said, noting that the lab also is currently focusing on other industry byproducts such as cadmium, arsenic and lead. "We pride ourselves on accuracy, efficiency and customer service," said George. "We are here to lend our expertise to those in our community. Whether it be method development, testing protocols or educational seminars, we try to help in the best way possible. Remember, we never say no."

Heather Heilman can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000