Three Months After Sandy: Inside the Rebuilding of New York University’s Research Labs

Hurricane Sandy destroyed years of cancer and brain research. How scientists are recovering from the damage.

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It’s been three months since Hurricane Sandy barreled along the East Coast, plunging the majority of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs into darkness, and displacing hundreds of people from their homes. As neighborhoods continue to rebuild, and in honor of the three-month anniversary, President Obama recently signed the much-anticipated Sandy Relief Bill for $50.5 billion.

One group awaiting some of that recovery funding are scientists and researchers from New York University (NYU), who lost years of research in cancer and neuroscience when the storm knocked out the power supporting their freezers, and water flooded their animal facilities, drowning their mice.

On the night the storm surge hit the city, the power outage at the NYU Langone Medical Center became a closely followed emergency. A fuel oil storage caused the hospital’s  back-up generators to malfunction, and about 300 patients were evacuated to neighboring hospitals in the city. In the same outage, NYU’s scientific animal research centers, including the Smilow Research Center, one of the largest animal research facilities housing lab mice and specimens critical to heart disease, cancer and brain research, were severely damaged.

“It is not very different from someone losing their entire home. For scientists, their research is their lifeline,” says Dr. Dafni Bar-Sagi, senior vice president and vice dean for science and chief scientific officer for NYU. “For someone who started three to four years ago, and just got to a point to launch their research program, it’s time to rewind and start from fresh.”

(MORE: Storm Destroys Valuable Medical Research)

In the 36 hours leading up to the storm, a team of NYU Langone staff members led by Jennifer Pullium, director of the division of laboratory animal resources at the NYU Langone Medical Center, prepared the lab animals for the incoming storm by stockpiling food and bedding and moving cages to higher shelves. It should’ve been enough to keep the valuable lab mice alive for up to 10 days if the scientists couldn’t reach them before then.

The animals were kept in the basement, a decision that’s been questioned, but the university insists it is a standard industry practice. Study animals must be kept in controlled cycles of light and dark—something that’s easiest in the absence of natural light. Most of the equipment used to maintain the animals is typically too heavy for upper floors and the animals are also kept in near-sterile “super clean” conditions, meaning moving them without an urgent need would compromise their health.

Should they have been moved? Perhaps. But the researchers insist the storm was an unprecedented event for NYU, and equally unexpected.

The medical center’s emergency power system was supposed to withstand a flood surge of approximately 12 feet, but with estimates of the actual surge at two feet higher, the hospital quickly plunged into darkness and staff members securing the animals scattered. “It was a matter of minutes until we had to get our staff out for their own safety,” says Pullium. It happened so fast.”

Bar-Sagi says she realized the worst was possible when the power in her own apartment quickly sputtered out. After a sleepless night, she walked to the hospital at 4 a.m. to assess the damage. Communication lines were down, but NYU researchers throughout the city hurried to the scene to save whatever biological specimens they could from their failing fridges. For the following four days, Bar-Sagi orchestrated research evacuation efforts and held meetings in stairwells and empty offices to calm concerns of desperate researchers unable to get to their animals.

(MORE: Lessons from Storm Sandy: When Hospital Generators Fail)

After the storm


Courtesy of NYU

NYU researchers working to save lab materials.

A week after the storm, when the flooding had subsided, workers used crowbars to break into the basement at Smilow, and discovered 600 cages on the upper shelves still housed living lab mice. They cut holes through the ceiling and lifted the cages through, four at a time. The discovery was a silver lining, but considering a total of 7,660 cages of mice and 22 cages of rats were trapped in total, the loss was still overwhelming for many.

Months after the storm, NYU researchers are still working in makeshift labs throughout New York City. Some have set up shop in their colleagues’ labs on the NYU campus, and others are working at neighboring research institutions like Rockefeller University, an unconventional collaboration given the competitive nature of science community, similar to two rival sports teams sharing training time.

The researchers hardest hit are those who rely on animals for the better part of their experiments, such as Dr. Gordon Fishell, the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute, whose work focuses on connecting brain function to disease. Fishell’s lab chemicals survived for the most part, but he lost most of his mouse population that was critical to his investigation of diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and epilepsy. “[The mice] are our partners in discovery. We care a lot about them,” says Fishell.

Mice make ideal models for scientific research of human diseases, since they are easy to manipulate genetically. But when scientists modify the mice with specific genetic tweaks, they are difficult to replace. Fortunately, Fishell, like many other researchers, shared some of his strains with other research institutions that are willing to provide him with mice for breeding, making the task slightly less daunting.

Still, before Sandy hit, Fishell had approximately 800 different strains of mice, of which about 20 were uniquely bred by his team, each with several layers of modifications that he was tracking over several generations. “These mice cost quite a bit. Anywhere from on the low-end of $20,000 [to] the high end [of] well over $100,000 to make,” says Fishell.

And that’s not accounting for the time that he and his lab members devoted to breeding the animals. It takes eight weeks for male mice to mature sufficiently to reproduce, six weeks for female mice, and gestation lasts about 19 days. It takes even longer depending on how many generations are needed to pass along the modifications. “It takes about a year to produce them if everything is ideal and perfect, and usually everything isn’t,” says Fishell.

“We are in an incredibly vigorous and exciting time for brain research. A year of lost time is a year of lost time,” says Fishell. “Maybe you’re ahead of people, and suddenly you’ve lost that year and nothing stays still.”

(MORE: How Disasters Bring Out Our Kindness)

Similarly, Mary Helen Barcellos-Hoff, a professor of radiation oncology and cell biology at NYU and her team lost mouse populations involved in studies of how radiation exposure increases cancer risk as well as how radiation can be targeted to treat tumors. Her group lost their mice as well as their radiation equipment, including a brand new, half million-dollar machine that took two years to obtain.

When the power went out, Barcellos-Hoff’s researchers spent hours climbing up and down eight flights of stairs, trying to save specimens stored in thawing freezers. “They trudged in the dark, carrying our precious samples that we stored from experiments we have already completed,” says Barcellos-Hoff. “We work on those for years, and those are the most precious things in our laboratory. We can always replace equipment, we can always replace reagents, we can even replace mice, but replacing an experiment that took you two years to complete is really tedious.”

Acting quickly, Barcellos-Hoff’s team was able to rev up some of their ongoing studies to meet deadlines, but were forced to terminate others. Even though some of their mice survived the storm, Barcellos-Hoff says they could never account for the effect that the week and a half the animals spent in the dark might have had on the results.

Awaiting Funding

Despite the challenges, the researchers are optimistic that they will be able to resume most of their work. Their slow-moving recovery is frustrating, but support from the academic community has provided hope. Within four days, Fishell received 100 emails from competing scientists offering their services and even volunteering to breed mice for him.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey also visited NYU to survey the wreckage and show solidarity. “I can tell you the damage is truly appalling,” Collins wrote on his blog. “Some of the labs are unusable because the infrastructure has been essentially obliterated.” The NIH promised to help ease the transition by altering submission deadlines for grants, negotiating new goals for ongoing projects and extending training hours for new researchers.

The greatest relief will likely come from the funding the NIH allocates toward NYU.  Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is sorting out how much of the $195 million Emergency Fund from the Sandy Relief Bill will go to HHS agencies, like the NIH. After that, NYU will await guidance on how much funding they can apply for and hopefully receive.

In the meantime, all they can do is work with what they have and wait. But the researchers remain patient, because they don’t have another choice. “It takes a certain level of courage to do science,” says Fishell. “These people are betting their entire careers that they can do something no one has done before, get a result they can interpret, and discover something. I’d say [my researchers] gave themselves about 24 hours to sit there and think, ‘Oh my God. How can I get by this?’ and then they got back on, and have not looked back.”