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Katrina losses include research on stem cells, cancer, Alzheimer's

NEW ORLEANS—Midway through a sweeping assessment of their losses from Hurricane Katrina, researchers at New Orleans' universities and medical centers have found that decades of work have been obliterated.

Tissue samples and cells that could have held the key to cures for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and AIDS were spoiled, as industrial freezers—usually 80 degrees below zero—warmed to 80 above.

Hundreds of researchers who'd poured their lives into petri dishes watched their work wash away in the hurricane.

The losses will have a devastating impact on scientists and on the patients who depend on their work, said Dr. Paul Whelton, the senior vice president for health services at Tulane University.

At Tulane, one of the nation's most well-funded research facilities, first-floor labs were immersed for days in 6 feet of water tainted by sewage and waste, while in upper-floor labs, tissues and microbes decayed in failed freezers.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding tied up in their projects, the university's 300 medical researchers—two of them Nobel laureates—now are hastening to save every cell that made it through the storm.

"We've been at this 170 years. You don't want to abandon the research infrastructure," Whelton said. "There's been a large influx of taxpayer dollars."

Much of Louisiana State University's medical research also was ruined. A private medical-research facility in New Orleans, Ochsner Medical Clinic, sustained little damage.

All 8,000 of LSU's lab animals died, and at Tulane thousands more died or were euthanized. Most of them were mice; a few were larger animals, including pigs and dogs.

Tulane's famed primate-research center sustained only minor damage, sparing the 7,000 monkeys, baboons and other primates on a 500-acre compound in nearby Covington, La., where scientists research such topics as the origin of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Tulane is known for its pioneering stem cell research, a revolutionary field in which researchers hope to find cures to diseases from cystic fibrosis to Alzheimer's. Stem cells are among those most jeopardized by power loss from the hurricane.

One of the most significant losses for Tulane researchers was the blood and urine specimens linked to the Bogalusa heart study, a four-decade investigation into heart-disease risk factors in the children of Bogalusa, a small town on the Mississippi border.

Researchers followed 8,000 children through their lives, measuring their blood pressure and cholesterol at every milestone to look for indicators of heart disease and ways to prevent it.

"Every individual has heartbreaking loss stories," said John Clements, who heads Tulane's microbiology and immunology department. "Every individual's research is irreplaceable to them. We've all lost a lot."

Researchers, accompanied by police escorts while New Orleans was still closed to the public, salvaged priceless data from projects that had tens of millions in funding.

Nearly two months after the hurricane, viable samples are still being found.

Clements led the first foray into the submerged laboratory to rescue laptops, notebooks and biological material a week after the storm. The building was still flooded with 4 feet of water.

"We're working in the dark; we don't have an inventory list," Clements said of the first day in. "We had an elevator guy standing waist-deep in sewage-contaminated water, blowing on the wires so we could short-circuit the elevator and get it working."

Clements, who develops vaccines for the most potent human threats—anthrax, plague, botulism—hasn't gotten to his lab yet.

"I've got 30 years of cultures in those freezers," the microbiologist said.

He's anxious about his work, but bigger priorities prevail.

"I can re-create everything in my lab, but it's going to be painful," Clements said. "Stem cells in the gene banks and the cancer cells in the tumor banks: Those are irreplaceable."

Many of the university's researchers have moved to Houston; some have taken visiting-professor posts at universities around the country.

Administrators expect to reopen Tulane's labs by January. Power is restored in one building and should return to others soon.

For now, researchers are shuttling out coolers full of biological material and rotating liquid-nitrogen cylinders.

"It's a continuing process, and it'll continue until the owner shows back up and says, `Those are my cells,'" Clements said.

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(Latson reports for the Olympian in Olympia, Wash.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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