No Noah for Houston researchers

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This article appeared in June 2001 on the now-defunct BioMedNet News, where I was U.S. news editor.

This month’s tropical storm in Texas washed away much of the research and hopes of many scientists at two closely situated medical centers. There were warnings; researchers ask why no one took precautions.

For more than two years, postdoctoral fellow Katherina Walz developed a mouse model for Smith-Magenis syndrome, a contiguous gene disorder caused by a deletion of chromosome 17. On the night of June 8, Walz slept peacefully in her Houston, Texas, home as Tropical Storm Allison, often called the “flood of the century,” destroyed all but 3 of her 150 mice, which were housed in the Baylor College of Medicine‘s animal facility.

“When I realized what happened on Saturday, I was crying all night long,” said the Argentinean postdoc, who came to the United States to work with James Lupski, professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor. “I never realized that the medical center was going to be flooded.”

Neither, apparently, did the other staff or the administration of the medical center. In the aftermath of the devastation, several researchers like Walz are coping with loss of expensive machinery, genetically engineered mice, unique cell lines, and other samples. And some are asking if their institution did enough to prevent the disaster.

“It’s really not clear to me as a scientist who runs a research lab, who depends on the administration to set up the necessary infrastructure to deal with situations like this, if they could have or could not have done something,” said Ronald Davis, professor of cell biology at Baylor. “I would like to see some independent study to find out what the problems were, where they were, and if they could have been prevented.”

Tropical Storm Allison brought a record 37 inches of rain to the Houston area earlier this month. It left 22 people dead and 30,000 homes damaged, and the number of losses is expected to rise. The storm developed rapidly, dumping more than 7 inches of rain between midnight Friday, June 8 and 2 A.M. the following Saturday. Telephones, Internet access, and email were down for days, and several buildings are still on emergency power.

The damage estimate to date, $2.14 billion, does not include irreplaceable medical and research samples and animals in Houston’s research facilities. About 30,000 laboratory mice appear to be missing from Baylor. Across the street, the University of Texas Medical School lost nearly 80 percent of its 5,000 animals, including 78 monkeys, 35 dogs, and several hundred rabbits. Damages to the Medical School building are estimated to be at least $45 million, plus about $15 million in the adjacent Cyclotron Facility and another $12 million in lost equipment in the school’s basement.

Both institutions were closed for several days last week and operated with a skeleton staff. “There are no lights,” said one employee at Baylor’s biochemistry department. “We can’t even drink water. We’ve been hit very hard.”

“It’s still very hard to know how much damage there has been,” said Lupski. Opting to save the most irreplaceable of their work, graduate students and postdocs in his laboratory carried hundreds of pounds of dry ice up six flights of stairs twice a day, in sweltering 110° Fahrenheit heat and high humidity. For now, Lupski hopes, most of his 15 years of patient cell lines are safe. But thousands of dollars’ worth of restriction enzymes and Taq polymerase are irretrievable.

Baylor University administration organized a faculty meeting last week where administrators “did their best to explain what they thought happened,” Lupski said. Although officials insist that the magnitude of the storm was too great, “there have been recent warnings about what could happen,” said Davis. “Why haven’t there been steps taken? Or maybe they have and I just don’t know about it,” he added.

After 1998’s Tropical Storm Frances dumped between 5 and 6 inches on Houston in eight hours, Rice University professor Philip Bedient warned the Texas Medical Center that even slightly more rain would bring devastation to the Medical Center and to other structures in the area.

Officials at both institutions have maintained that there was no way to prepare adequately for a storm of Allison’s magnitude, and that the rain and flooding were events that could not have been prevented. Records at the National Weather Service show, however, that as early as 5 A.M. Friday and all through the day, flood warnings predicted at least 10 inches.

“Since large portions of southeast Texas have grounds that are already saturated from Allison-associated rainfall over the past three days,” the warning read, “this additional heavy rainfall will lead to more deep standing water and overflows of small streams, creeks, and bayous across southeast Texas.” But in spite of the warnings, there is often “a false sense of security with situations like this,” explained Gregory Waller, a National Weather Service spokesman.

Little has changed at the Center since Bedient, a surface and groundwater hydrology expert, wrote his report to prepare for a tropical storm. A $455 million plan to expand nearby Brays Bayou is planned but will not be completed till 2015. The part of the project that will benefit the Texas Medical Center has also yet to be approved by the federal government, the Houston Chronicle reports.

According to James W. Patrick, vice president and dean of research at Baylor, 4 of the institution’s 8 buildings had strong flood doors and were only marginally damaged. In the older buildings, backup generators either flooded or did not take over because the switches were underground. The mouse facility was in one of the older buildings and was under four feet of water.

Even before 1999, the Medical Center built a $40 million facility to house genetically engineered mice, Patrick says. But to ensure that the mice taken to the new facility were clean, only re-derived mice were transferred from the old facility. The Center has 130,000 mice, so transferring them all would be laborious and time-consuming. Mice that survived Tropical Storm Allison will not be transferred to the new facility until they have been re-derived, Patrick says.

Although it is too early to assess the total damage in intellectual property and research efforts, offers of mouse lines and other resources have come pouring in from all across the country. The National Institutes of Health have extended grant deadlines, and Patrick hopes that they may also be of assistance financially.

Should a disaster like Allison serve to warn researchers to maintain duplicates of their work? BioMedNet News asked Lupski.

“We do keep some backup samples but it’s unrealistic to create two of all your samples,” he answered. “You certainly learn a lot of lessons when something like this happens, but you have to have a sense of humor. If there’s one lesson I have learned, it’s to have tall postdocs. It’s the bottom four racks [of the mouse facility] that were flooded.”

Unfortunately, for Katherina Walz, she stands at only five-foot five.

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