Of Mice and Floods: Researchers at NYU Pull Together to Save Lab Animals

Written by Paul Bisceglio on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


Some New Yorkers lost their cars to Hurricane Sandy. Some lost their homes, and as of Monday, 43 had even lost their lives. Charles Hoeffer lost his mice.

That may seem inconsequential, but consider this: Hoeffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. He researches human learning and memory—specifically, how they are affected by neurological and neurodegenerative disorders like autism, down syndrome and Alzheimer’s. To study these conditions, he uses live mice.

“I essentially have a little mouse circus downstairs,” Hoeffer said of his lab in the basement of the Joan and Joel Smilow Research Center, one of Langone’s many buildings between East 30th and 34th streets and First Avenue and FDR Drive. These are not mice you see scurrying across the street: They are carefully bred to replicate specific genes involved in human disorders, for instance, or to have other exact traits. Producing these exact mice can take months, even a year, of studious cross-breeding, depending on the complexity of the trait needed.

“You can’t replace the time,” Hoeffer said. “That’s the real loss.”

On Monday, Oct. 29, Hoeffer watched from his apartment building next door as his downstairs lab along with the rest of Langone’s lower floors filled with floodwater. The damage was swift, the result of a storm surge that pushed the East River’s water beyond First Avenue along the Upper East Side. Langone’s backup generator failed in the middle of the night, forcing staff at the center’s hospital to evacuate hundreds of patients and jeopardizing any materials throughout the center that needed refrigeration to survive.

Langone had vivariums (cages that house lab animals) spread throughout the center, some in basements and others at higher levels. NYU is still in the midst of assessing the extent of damages to its faculty’s research projects, but Hoeffer explained that these damages varied significantly from researcher to researcher. In terms of mice, some people who kept them in above-ground facilities were totally unaffected, while others who worked exclusively in underground labs suffered more crippling losses.

For Hoeffer, things could have been much worse, he said. He worked below ground in Smilow, but also has mice above-ground in a satellite lab. “We’re still trying to find out what we lost exactly,” he noted, “but I think that almost all our losses are pretty quickly replaceable.”

Neither Hoeffer nor NYU had specific estimates of the number of mice killed. Hoeffer tended about 300 mice, but bigger labs, he said, kept up to 6,000. It is still unclear how many of these mice were caged high enough in labs to avoid floodwater or removed in advance.

Hoeffer was optimistic about the recovery process, and pointed out many silver linings to the destruction. “The community definitely got closer,” he said, and also mentioned thankfully that researchers across the country—and world—offered their support in the wake of the storm, sharing data and donating supplies.

A disaster like this shows “what’s really important to human health and science,” Hoeffer said, “what really needs to get done, and what kind of things you can live without.”

During the flooding, NYU’s Division of Laboratory Animal Resources (DLAR) worked throughout the night, and the following days, to save what remaining animals they could after removing as many animals as possible days in advance of the storm. DLAR’s director, who asked not to be named for protection from animal rights groups, said that floodwater rushed into basement facilities “like [on] the Titanic.”

The director noted that a number of mice in vivariums high off the floor of flooded labs were found alive and well last week. Some had babies.

Hoeffer explained, “It’s not this complete tragic situation. It’s not cataclysmic. The great thing about science is that you can change your question or change your approach. You can still do important things, just not the way you originally planned.”

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