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Researchers to the Rescue

December 19, 2006

Fran Simon
Photography by Tulanian

When Hurricane Katrina struck, Tulane's research programs were suddenly put on hold. Power outages, then water damage, threatened research projects. Despite the most inhospitable of conditions, scientists and staff returned to lab spaces to save what they could.

tulwin06_research1_1With no electrical power, the J. Bennett Johnston Health and Environmental Research Building, Tidewater Building and the medical school buildings downtown had thigh-high floodwater in their first floors and irreplaceable biological specimens at risk in freezers and refrigerators. The various samples represented decades of research by Tulane scientists, and the work of nearly 300 funded investigators was in jeopardy.

"On Sept. 10, the institution started recovery operations," says John Clements, chair of the microbiology and immunology department.

Clements, not only a scientist himself but also a Marine who spent several months in Iraq in 2003, oversaw the recovery effort on the downtown campus. After the hurricane, he performed myriad duties, including overseeing a "tank farm" consisting of rows of liquid nitrogen tanks holding valuable cell lines and samples.

Teams rescued hundreds of animals, including irreplaceable transgenic mice from the health sciences and uptown vivaria and transported them to the Tulane National Primate Research Center.

"All the research programs at Tulane were affected," says Laura Levy, associate senior vice president for research. In addition to the physical losses, Levy says it will be important to quantify the lost time and lost opportunity. "It would be a mistake to put an estimate on our losses at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars."

tulwin06_research2_1Darwin Prockop, an international leader in adult stem cell research, says the gene therapy group recovered the most valuable and important adult stem cell lines at Tulane.

Public health and population science projects, including the Bogalusa Heart Study, suffered a severe blow, says Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences. Led by cardiologist Gerald Berenson, the Bogalusa Heart Study is the longest-running biracial study of risk factors for heart disease. Thousands of frozen urine and blood samples collected from patients enrolled in research projects since 1973 thawed and were destroyed.

Fortunately, Berenson was able to retrieve computer data already collected. "The Bogalusa Heart Study will go on," Berenson says. "We'll just have to pick up the pieces from what we have."

Gary McPherson, associate dean of the liberal arts and sciences, was concerned about potential damage in the sub-basement of Percival Stern Hall on the uptown campus, home of laboratories containing sophisticated and expensive equipment. As soon as possible following Hurricane Katrina, McPherson rushed to Stern to preserve several nuclear magnetic resonance machines, costing as much as $1.5 million, scrambling to add more liquid helium to keep the equipment cool.

David Mullin, chair of cell and molecular biology, worried about the fate of cell lines, enzymes and reagents used not only for research but also teaching. As soon as possible, Mullin drove all night from Huntsville, Ala., to New Orleans to re-enter the campus. He carried liquid nitrogen in buckets into the darkened buildings to top off storage tanks. Despite his efforts, Yiping Chen, a researcher in the department, lost four years' worth of stem cell lines he was using to study genes involved in tooth initiation and regeneration.

"We learned that it's important to come back, and you have to come back early to make things happen," Mullin says. "Time is the real issue."

Winter 2006

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