Sandy's Blackout Threatens to Destroy Trove of Medical Research

Research labs could lose years of work to storm-related flooding and thawing.

ByABC News
October 30, 2012, 4:05 PM

Oct. 31, 2012— -- Hundreds of researchers at the shuttered NYU Langone Medical Center scrambled today to salvage years of research into heart disease, cancer and other diseases as well as priceless lab specimens that have been put in jeopardy by the devastating storm Sandy.

NYU lost power shortly after superstorm Sandy struck Monday night. When backup generators failed, the Manhattan hospital evacuated 300 patients. But cells, tissues and animals used for medical research were left to die in failing refrigerators, freezers and incubators.

"It's so horrible, you don't even want to think about it," said Michelle Krogsgaard, a cancer biologist at NYU's Smilow Research Center. "All the work we did, all the time and money, we're going to have to start all over."

The power failure blocked access to the darkened 13-floor research center, which houses labs dedicated to heart disease, neurodegeneration and cancer research behind electronic key card readers. But today, Krogsgaard and members of her lab were allowed in to rescue tissue samples from thawing freezers. They are currently waiting for dry ice, which will buy them time as they relocate the specimens.

Krogsgaard also hopes to top up depleted tanks of liquid nitrogen, which store irreplaceable cell lines.

"We could lose everything we've done since I started at NYU six years ago," she said.

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Earlier today, the website for NYU's research center posted a message urging employees to stay home indefinitely.

"At this time, we are focusing on assessing the full extent of the storm's impact on all of our patient care, research, and education facilities," reads a message on the research center's website. "Please do not report to work."

The rest of the center's website and its email servers are down, and calls to phones connected to the hospital end in a busy signal.

"I think the major problem is that there's no communication at all," said Krogsgaard, who until today was unable to access her 13th floor lab and heard nothing from the center's administrators. "That's the worst. And you can't get in. There's nothing you can do."

The center's animal facility, where mice and rats specially bred for human disease research are kept in warmed cages, is located in the basement of the flooded building. It's unclear if the animals survived.

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"It's overwhelming," said Krogsgaard, who breeds genetically engineered mice to investigate therapies for human melanoma. "It would probably take a year to rebuild the colony. But I know people with more complicated lines, and it would take them even longer."

The damage at NYU could also make it hard for researchers compete for federal research funds, which have become increasingly hard to secure.

"It's going to be hard to publish," said Krogsgaard, explaining how research projects will grind to a halt as labs struggle to rebuild. "It's going to look like we've made no progress."

Krogsgaard said her lab members, whom she reached by phone and personal email, are safe.

"At least we know everyone's OK," she said, lamenting Sandy's wake of destruction along the coast. "So many people have lost their homes."

Sandy spawned record-breaking tides around lower Manhattan, prompting power outages from East 39th Street to Battery Park. NYU Langone Medical Center is located at East 33rd Street on 1st Avenue. The 50-year-old building sits at sea level atop an extended bulkhead in Kipp's Bay.

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Without power and ventilation, lower levels of the dampened Smilow building have a rotten smell. The top floor smells of diesel fuel from the nearby generator room.

The medical center had at least two diesel generators: one in the basement and one on the roof, according to a spokeswoman. But basement flooding caused one generator to fail, and cut off the fuel supply to the other.