'Cane Disrupts Scientific Research

Flood waters from Katrina surround Tulane University. AP

As rising floodwaters swamped New Orleans, Louisiana's chief epidemiologist enlisted state police on a mission to break into a high-security government lab and destroy any dangerous germs before they could escape or fall into the wrong hands.

Armed with bolt cutters and bleach, Dr. Raoult Ratard's team entered the state's so-called "hot lab," and killed all the living samples.

"This is what had to be done," said Ratard, who matter-of-factly put a sudden end to his lab's work on dangerous germs, which he wouldn't name.

At least Ratard's team was able to retrieve laptop computers containing vital scientific data. Many other scientists in the region weren't so fortunate, losing years of research, either through storm damage or voluntary destruction.

Not since the torrential floods from Tropical Storm Allison, which badly damaged the Texas Medical Center in 2001, has scientific research been disrupted on such a large scale. Doctors and researchers in the Crescent City became exiles overnight, indefinitely locked out of their labs and unable to see patients.

Thousands of laboratory animals -- many genetically engineered with human diseases like cancer and painstakingly bred and cared for -- perished along with vital tissue samples thawed in abandoned labs.

Important work on heart disease, cancer, AIDS and a host of other ailments may be lost forever to scientists at Tulane and Louisiana State universities' medical schools in New Orleans.

LSU lost all of its 8,000 lab animals, including mice, rats, dogs and monkeys. Many drowned. Others died without food and water and the rest were euthanized, said Dr. Larry Hollier, dean of the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.

About 300 federally funded projects at New Orleans colleges and universities worth more than $150 million - including 153 projects at Tulane - were affected in some way, according to an initial survey by the National Institutes of Health.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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