Research Lost in Katrina Flood: A Newsmaker Interview With Paul K. Whelton, MD, PhD

September 23, 2005

Sept. 22, 2005 — Editor's Note: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, flood waters engulfing New Orleans laboratories may have damaged not only research facilities, but also destroyed irreplaceable data, tissue samples, and genetically engineered and other animals involved in ongoing medical studies. In addition to compromising this research and the information that can ultimately be gleaned from it, hurricane damage could in theory allow release of infected animals or other biohazards into the environment.

An initial survey by the National Institutes of Health suggests that Katrina affected approximately 300 federally funded projects at New Orleans colleges and universities, cumulatively valued at more than $150 million, including 153 projects at Tulane and others at Louisiana State University (LSU). These include the Bogalusa Heart Study of cardiovascular risk factors, and ongoing studies of AIDS, cancer, and other conditions. When the power went out and back-up generators failed at a Tulane laboratory, cryopreserved tissue samples collected since 1973 in the Bogalusa Heart Study thawed and became useless for all but DNA analysis.

For some Gulf Coast investigators, Katrina seems like déjà vu, because Tropical Storm Allison severely damaged the Texas Medical Center in 2001, causing major interruptions and losses to ongoing research. During Katrina, the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Medicine is reported to have lost approximately 8,000 rodents, dogs, and primates involved in studies. However, Tulane's National Primate Research Center in Covington, just north of New Orleans, reported that none of its 5,000 primates escaped. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bioweapons defense laboratories in areas affected by Katrina reported no breakdowns in security.

To learn more about the implications of research disrupted by the hurricane, Medscape's Laurie Barclay interviewed Paul K. Whelton, MD, PhD, senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane University Health Sciences Center; professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine; and professor of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Dr. Whelton has been a lead investigator in many large observational epidemiologic studies and clinical trials, and since Katrina struck, he has been coordinating Tulane's response to the challenges faced by its research community.

Medscape: What were the consequences of lost data and research animals because of

severe flooding from Tropical Storm Allison, which damaged the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in 2001, and what progress has been made in reversing the effects of these losses?

Dr. Whelton: I cannot speak for the institutions in the TMC but am aware that they faced a big challenge. Despite this, they remained a major force in biomedical research.

Medscape: When Katrina struck, what measures were taken by researchers at Tulane and at other affected institutions to minimize losses and risks?

Dr. Whelton: First we helicoptered about 2,000 people out safely, with no loss of life. As soon as we got the last patient, faculty member, staff member, student, and friend out alive, we focused our attention on the following in this order: first, working closely with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal partners; second, conducting a research assets inventory; third, removing or retaining in place vital research assets; fourth, providing supervised access to our buildings on a need-to-visit basis; fifth, informing our research community of progress and policies and assisting them in their efforts to continue their research; and sixth, starting strategic planning for the future of our research enterprise.

Medscape: What were the losses to Tulane and other New Orleans institutions because of Katrina, in terms of laboratory animals and disrupted research?

Dr. Whelton: It's hard to quantify the situation, but clearly our research community has faced major disruption at best and severe loss of research assets and capacity at worst. The impact varies greatly by research discipline. There has been little impact on international research, but major losses for domestic epidemiology biological data banks, and scattering of participants in population and clinical research studies. We managed to save many of our key research assets, including transgenic mice colonies and cell lines.

Medscape: What are the potential health consequences if pathogens or laboratory animals were to escape or fall into the wrong hands?

Dr. Whelton: This was never a practical issue for us, but it was a theoretic concern that Tulane and the NIH addressed at the earliest stage. We both concluded that it was not an issue. We had veterinarians and vet staff in place prior to the evacuation, and we got a veterinarian team back into our buildings as a part of the first re-entry mission.

Medscape: What were the estimated losses involving federally funded projects at Tulane and at other New Orleans colleges and universities?

Dr. Whelton: It's too early to tell, but they will be substantial, at least at Tulane. I cannot speak for the others.

Medscape: How will losses from Katrina affect the Bogalusa Heart Study?

Dr. Whelton: Specimens in the Bogalusa Heart Study, and other epidemiologic specimens that were stored in –70-degree freezers, were exposed to room temperature after power was lost and are likely only useful as a source of DNA and for genetic studies. However, the participants in these studies have been profiled extensively, and much valuable information is available in computer databases. I have not had an opportunity to speak with Dr. [Gerald] Berenson regarding whether and to what extent he may have back-up specimens elsewhere in the country.

Medscape: Is there anything you would like to add in closing?

Dr. Whelton: I'd like to believe the university has taken a proactive stance to minimize the impact of Katrina on our research community. Fortunately, our most valuable asset — investigators and their staff and students — is intact. Likewise, we were able to feed and water our animals as long as we had staff in our facilities immediately post-Katrina, and to get back to them with the shortest delay possible. We were also able to preserve most, possibly all, of our patient- and research-related cell lines and materials and equipment under liquid nitrogen.

Our epidemiology and clinical research community may have suffered the most due to loss of power to their –70-degree freezers and scattering of their populations. Many researchers are facing severe disruption of their projects. We are trying to assist them on an individual basis. Needless to say, we are working hard to see if and when we can get them back to their own space. We face a severe challenge and will need substantial help to get back on track, but we are receiving wonderful support and encouragement from our colleagues in the academic community and in federal research agencies, including the NIH and National Science Foundation.

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

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