Katrina Leaves Scientific Research in Ruins
By Amanda Gardner
Oct 13, 2005

While still dealing with those left dead or homeless by Hurricane Katrina, cities and towns torn by the storm are now turning their attention to another disastrous loss: years of research that could have yielded important medical and scientific knowledge over the coming decades.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) has estimated that Katrina inflicted serious damage on about 300 federally funded projects in New Orleans alone, representing more than $150 million in research dollars, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has even set up a phone line for researchers affected by "extraordinary circumstances" which "are likely to persist."

"We've all been affected," said Dr. William Pinsky, executive vice president and chief academic officer of the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. "Louisiana State University and Tulane were probably more severely affected than we were."

Over the last four or five years, Tulane University, especially, had emerged as a research powerhouse, tripling its NIH support during that time. In fact, the university was the only institution in the area ranking on the NIH's "Top 100" list in terms of funding, according to Dr. Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane. Annual research awards granted to Tulane are in the $150 million range, representing about 50 percent of all NIH dollars coming into the state, he said, and the institution is the largest employer in the city of New Orleans.

"Where we were was doing very well," Whelton said.

Katrina and her aftermath have changed that, although the extent of the damage is not yet clear.

One example is the Bogalusa Heart Study, which was tracking the diets, lifestyles and blood chemistry of 16,000 people in Bogalusa, La., with an eye to pinpointing risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Thirty to 40 years' worth of biological samples were stored in minus-70-degree freezers. After three or four days without power, those freezers rose to room temperature and two generations' worth of knowledge went with them. Genetic analysis is still possible, as DNA can withstand such changes, but other tests are now out of the question, Whelton said.

Other clinical trials were also compromised. Once samples are lost, current histories of heart attack and stroke can't be compared to the participants' prior experience or to the prior experience of people who are disease-free.

"You can't recreate those samples," Whelton said. "It's really devastating to the investigators who spent a lifetime putting these studies together faithfully. It's their life's work."

Added to the loss is the fact that many of the several thousand people participating in ongoing clinical trials at Tulane have been dispersed. "They've been blown all over the country," Whelton said. Researchers are trying to connect patients with physicians so as to continue research, but it's not clear how much lapses in protocol may have compromised the studies.

The Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans had a pre-planned evacuation plan for its "essential animals" in place. A couple of hundred animals, mostly rodents, deemed critical to ongoing research were evacuated by van prior to the hurricane. Essential animals included those who were involved in long-term research, such as mice with specific tumors. Those used for "acute" experiments such as dietary interventions were less likely to be saved.

According to Medscape, LSU Health Sciences Center School of Medicine lost about 8,000 rodents, dogs and primates. And while Tulane's Primate Research Center was damaged, none of the 5,000 animals were lost.

Ochsner had about 800 open clinical studies covering cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more when the hurricane hit. Many people were redirected to Ochsner's clinic in Baton Rouge but may have missed taking their medication or attending follow-up visits. "It's too early to tell whether or not that will have an impact," Pinsky said.

One of the greatest challenges facing institutions like Tulane is the loss of personnel. A study out of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that 5,944 doctors were displaced in 10 counties and parishes in Louisiana and Mississippi, the largest displacement of U.S. physicians in American history.

Some researchers have found lab space locally, while others have found temporary quarters at Rutgers in New Jersey or Emory University in Atlanta. One faculty member of Tulane's School of Public Health rotates his time between New Orleans, Baton Rouge and New Jersey, where his family found refuge.

As faculty members decide whether to accept or reject posts in faraway towns, the task right now for Tulane is to keep going.

"We have a lot of applications going in, awards going in. It ain't perfect but we are encouraging people to get back on track," Whelton said. "We're determined."