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Animal Testing

Lab Animals Wiped Out in Hurricane Sandy

When I mentioned the people working in the research animal facilities before Hurricane Sandy, I had no idea that this was going to happen: thousands of genetically engineered and/or specially bred rodents were lost from an NYU facility due to flooding. The Fishell lab appears to have lost its entire stock of 2,500 mice, representing 10 years of work. Very bad news indeed for the people whose careers were depending on these.

34 comments on “Lab Animals Wiped Out in Hurricane Sandy”

  1. Zak says:

    Not to kick ’em while their down, but isn’t putting 10 years worth of work in a basement right next to an ocean not very, um, wise? Especially with people foretelling more and greater floods with global warming?

  2. JAB says:

    I recall that Univ Texas Med School in Houston had their whole animal colony wiped out in one of the hurricanes some years ago…assume they changed the location after that or built dikes…

  3. Generic Ravens Fan says:

    I think it was Baylor that took a huge hit to their animal facility in Tropical Storm Allison. Episodes like these highlight one of the upsides of sharing your reagents — if you’ve sent your mice to collaborators, it’s a lot easier to get some sent back than to regenerate them. My heart goes out to all the NY/NJ scientists who lost stuff — it’s devastating.
    One of the lab buildings at Hopkins lost power during Sandy and all the animals had to be moved, but I think losses were minimal. Still, trundling all your Rag-/- mice through the hallways to another building at a moment’s notice can certainly mess up your experiments.

  4. That’s sad. I wonder if they considered evacuating the animals when the potential impact of the hurricane became clear a few days before it hit.

  5. Mo says:

    Yes, I imagine the mice would die. But did they lose their frozen gametes? Because then it doesn’t really represent 10 years work lost…
    And if you dive into the article it says that the Smilow Center lost a total of 10’000 rodents, 2’500 of them from the Fishell lab. God, that’s a lot of science!

  6. road says:

    Making frozen stocks of gametes or sperm is not standard practice at a lot of places. Sure seems like a good idea in hindsight, though…

  7. Plenum says:

    Unfortunately it’s the post-docs that really lose. I can only imagine spending two years to generate a knockout / backcross only to lose it right before you begin working with the in vivo models. Even a relatively simple backcross – putting a TCR Tg along with the Cre-specific knockout – takes months and to lose such a mouse in the middle of a post-doc is devastating. These mice won’t be frozen down, nor should they – we just go through too many combinations for it to be feasible (space, financially, time). Moving a colony isn’t a simple solution either. Those mice are worthless for experiments, so moving breeders is the only viable option. Even then, if you move two breeding pairs you have to deal with SPF (Specific Pathogen Free) issues and assuming you can start up the colony immediately (ignoring quarantine), you have 21 days from pregnancy to birth, 21 days to wean, and the, depending on the experiments, waiting time for the mice to come of age (8-12 weeks for many immunology experiments). This, of course, depends upon the mothers not eating their litters.
    Mice are bad enough, but losing RNA preps, supernatants, cell lines, and reagents (especially under tight budgets) can take months to recover from.
    A post-doc in the middle of a project is in very serious trouble and may be better off starting fresh with a new project (even in the same lab). What about a paper in submission? What if the reviewers ask to repeat an experiment or to add another experiment? What do you do then? Even if another lab at another institution has the mice you need, it’s not easy to immediately repeat the experiments in the new colony as the mice have different gut flora and are exposed to different pathogens (many immunological disease models and manifest very differently in different mouse colonies – even within different rooms within the same mouse colony, we have one mouse room that gives us a great EAE response, while we can’t induce EAE for the world in another mouse room within the same colony; we don’t know why).
    The labs will survive, but the post-docs, all of which are under severe time pressures, will be seriously re-evaluating their careers.

  8. road says:

    @7 – grad-students make mice, too…

  9. Anon says:

    UTHouston Med school/UTHealth had their mice moved over to MD Anderson and they were saved. BCM is the one that lost a large amount.
    I agree with Plenum, it is the Postdocs that lose here.

  10. Anon says:

    @7 It really shows how unnecessary a postdoc can be if you are generating novel mouse models as a grad student! Unfortunately I have rarely heard of such talented students being recognized and put in a faculty position.

  11. gippgig says:

    The real loser is science.
    Everyone (not just scientists!) needs to have backup plans for things they can’t just walk away from.
    #7: How much effort has been made to figure out what causes that EAE response difference? Sounds like there’s some interesting science there and figuring it out might be very useful for improving animal studies in general.

  12. Plenum says:

    @8 Absolutely – graduate students certainly make mice too. However, a graduate student could still get a solid post-doctoral position (though it would be more difficulty to secure a fellowship) with a sunk project given the situation (and help from the PI). I can think of several post-docs in top labs who didn’t have a first author paper (or had a low impact paper) as graduate students – I can’t imagine this working for a tier I faculty position. Additionally, a post-doc in a discipline that heavily uses mice typically builds a new lab (if they go into academia) using the system/reagents they established as a post-doc, whereas a graduate student typically starts a post-doc tabula rasa.
    @10 Different disciplines have different requirements. I’ve seen graduate students go directly (or heavily fast-tracked) to faculty in biophysics, computational biology, and biological chemistry positions. I haven’t seen it (not to say it doesn’t exist) within neuroscience, microbiology, or immunology.

  13. Nate says:

    I guess what was is unclear to me is why not move these animals to a higher floor until the danger has passed. While it won’t be optimal conditions, they could make it pretty long. I could see some ingenious people rigging up something too for makeshift SPF conditions. Even if you lose 50% of the colony, it’s better than 100%

  14. sbntr says:

    my heart goes out to all the post-docs. truly depressing.

  15. SL says:

    Idiots! Should lose both their jobs and/or license. They could potentially have affected the health of thousands if not millions of people. What if these test mice were carrying a virus, and thus survived the flooding?

  16. Anonymous says:

    It’s clear that SL does not have a science background. Mice in labs are usually held to strictier controls for infections that mice you will find around town.

  17. Karl says:

    Pretty dumb setup if long-term results could be affected by flooding. Guess they don’t cover that in book learning.

  18. li says:

    Nobody knew it was coming! Its not like Fishell is immediately adjacent to the East River. Besides who could possibly have expected high water! What kind of mind would be expected to predict flooding during a Once a Century event?
    Nah, I think the lady doth protest too much. What would be the LEGAL implications for a mass move of biohazards? Is it even possible?

  19. gippgig says:

    The flooding was significantly worse than forecast and worse than ever before, but weather seems to be getting more extreme (as predicted by climate change models) – once a century events seem to be happening every few decades (& it is likely to get even worse).
    I doubt the rodents posed any significant biohazard.

  20. Ian Musgrave says:

    Whether the mice were biohazards or not, if the US regulations are like the Australian regulations then genetically modified animals, even innocuous knockout mice or not, have to be held in specially accredited rooms. Moving them to other rooms that do not have this specification may be forbidden by law or licence. coming up with a certified animal room at short notice in a storm is not trivial.
    Also, immune compromised animals (such as SCIDS mice which have had various genes knocked out/in) will not survive unless they are in special low bacteria barrier rooms, moving them to a non specialised room would have doomed them.

  21. drownedrat says:

    Basement animal facilities are necessary in part because they need to be hidden from animal liberation nutzoids.

  22. Hap says:

    Kips Bay may have been where NYU/other schools could find affordable real estate for an animal facility.

  23. Noah's Dove says:

    @19 gippgig
    OK, can’t let is slide any more. Those “once-a-century” events are based on how many centuries of data? What are the data inputs (wind speed, square miles of storm, $ damage to coastal cities)? What is the accuracy of that data collected over the past thousand years (correlation with native american weather records)?
    While climate change may/may not be happening, the models are crap (kinda like most virtual screening exercises I’ve seen), becuase we neither have enough data (and what we do have has been “selected”), nor do we understand all of the variables and how they interrelate. Worse, is the emotional empiricism around this topic. Must we trot out this political talking point (which is all it is about – another way to control people) every time nature acts up?

  24. rhodium says:

    @24 In a word, geology. Core samples, tree rings, ice cores allow for global and local reconstruction of climate and weather events. Layers of ash can show major fires in a local area. And all that sand people are moving, it would still be there from an older event. It tightens my jaws when people think others (who have studied something for 20, 30, 40 years) are too dumb to see problems they see at once.

  25. Helix says:

    I’m hearing a lot of people calling NYU/SK/SI/HHS stupid for putting their animal facilities in the basement – are things different at your institution? Of all the institutions that I’ve worked at or am familiar where the animal facilities are, only the NIH has animal facilities that aren’t in the basement (even then, the vast majority of the NIH animal colonies are underground). I know many institutes on the west coast, some next to the ocean or in concave areas, are in the same situation. Out of curiosity, should the animal facilities be moved – what should replace the space? If a lab was underground, they’d experience the same problem, except that the lab would lose their rare freezer reagents instead of mice.

  26. metaphysician says:

    I would expect PETA to be happy about this. Now that the rodents are dead, they can’t be used for eeeevvvvvillllll experiments anymore.

  27. MV says:

    A geologist here. A one in a hundred event is properly called a 1% chance of flooding in any one year. That means it can happen in successive years or even more than once in a year. It is also based on historical data. That means if there has been changes to the environment, such as weather patterns, changes in the watershed, or construction in the area, the chances almost always increase.
    If the area is subject to a 1% chance of flooding, that means it is in a defined flood plain. I would suggest that anyone who has anything in a floodplain that cannot be easily replaced is a foolish person. This certainly applies to someone who can afford to do medical research with animals. Over a 30 year time period the chance of such a facility being flooded is about 26%. Anyone operating facilities in such an area is okay with that.

  28. meh says:

    Agree with MV. Hard to feel much sympathy; don’t care about the Fishell lab. Shit happens. Save what you can, try to learn from past mistakes, and move on.

  29. @gippgig says:

    Any one of those research animals was less biohazardous than a typical New Yorker! Many SCID mice would die if coughed on by a human suffering from even a mild cold.
    As with ACLU, PETA has its priorities misplaced. While I’m glad that cosmetics companies are no longer applying 200 layers of mascara to rabbit eyes, the lives of the NYU Langone patients (many of whom were in critical condition) far outweighed those of the research animals. Besides, lab rats (even ones from NYC) can’t sue their handlers! Assuming that the biologists maintained accurate and detailed records, many of those specialty animals can be recloned, albeit at high cost in terms of time and money.
    Although many media outlets are tyring to equate the Sandy catastrophe with the Joplin, I feel that more appropriate comparisons would be made with Katrina. As with Katrina, the combination of a deluded and obstinate populace, ineffectual city government, and negligent health care administrators created an intra- and post-storm crisis. Nobody on Staten Island or the Rockaways should have been out and about during the hurricane. MTA should have temporarily sealed the most flood-vulnerale train tunnels. Learning from Tulane Med’s experience with Katrina, NYU Med should have relocated the most endangered patients (fine, and researchs animals) to more secure locations.
    Before anyone negatively responds to my post, I admit that hindsit is always 20/20. Neverthless, millions of people in the Danger Zone saw Sandy approaching for a whole week. Given that many New Yorkers have relatives and friends down in Florida, Carolinas, and other hurricane hotspots, why weren’t they better prepared in terms of provisions (water, food, and extra gasoline)?

  30. Anonymous says:

    Having made a few transgenic mice myself, I sympathize with the New York U researchers.
    That being said Cold Spring Harbor was prepared and was actually able to help the community.
    If the NYU researchers had shared their transgenics, then the recipient researcher should be able to return the favour.

  31. MV says:

    I should be clear that while this was geologically inevitable, I feel sorry for all the researchers that have to rebuild and the research that was lost.
    However, it really makes me angry that those in charge of the labs created a problem where none should have existed. You don’t put a major structure or important facility in a flood zone by accident. It is done intentionally. This event was not a surprise. The next flood event isn’t a surprise. Yes, the exact timing of the event will be but this is a known natural event that occurs on a fairly regular schedule. They gambled with important research and others lost.

  32. Hap says:

    27, 33: In the Midwest, there’s lots of land, and so correspondingly less excuse for building where it could flood. However, if you’re in NY, or NO, or, well, most of FL, or NJ (well, at least not the border islands), or MA, CT, or RI, well, where exactly should they have been? People built cities on rivers for ease of transit (shipping); we still have major ports in such places (NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Galveston, Houston), and so they happen to be where the jobs are, and where the resources for companies to find people with useful skills are. Unless transporters become commonplace, people have to live where the jobs are, and people have to put facilities there.
    The alternative to building in such places (the lower half of Manhattan, Back Bay/Boston waterfront, most of LA, etc., etc,) seem to be to not work in places where there might be something to do, or to accept the blame and pass along the cost to society anyway (those iPads and financial instruments don’t design themselves, after all). Not sure why either of those options is a good idea.

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