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Sandy’s Blackout Threatens to Destroy Trove of Medical Research

Michael Heiman/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Researchers at the shuttered NYU Langone Medical Center scrambled Wednesday to salvage years of research into heart disease, cancer and other diseases as well as priceless lab specimens that have been put in jeopardy by the devastating storm Sandy.

NYU lost power shortly after superstorm Sandy struck Monday night. When backup generators failed, the Manhattan hospital evacuated 300 patients. But cells, tissues and animals used for medical research may have been left to die in failing refrigerators, freezers and incubators.

"It's so horrible, you don't even want to think about it," said Michelle Krogsgaard, a cancer biologist at NYU's Smilow Research Center. "All the work we did, all the time and money, we're going to have to start all over."

Krogsgaard said they are bringing in liquid nitrogen and dry ice and trying to relocate freezers to buildings with power.

The power failure darkened the 13-floor Smilow building, which houses labs dedicated to heart disease, neurodegeneration and cancer research. It's unclear whether lab equipment was backed up by generators separate from the ones that failed, but researchers suspect human tissue samples stored in industrial freezers are slowly thawing, and cell lines frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks could be lost forever.

"The liquid nitrogen will be good for three or four days, but the question is when we're going to be able get in there," said Krogsgaard. "We could lose everything we've done since I started at NYU six years ago."

Some researchers tried to rescue their work Tuesday, but were blocked by electronic key card readers on laboratory doors that didn't work because the electricity was out.

It's unclear if the salvage effort is being carried out on their own. Earlier Wednesday the website for NYU's research center posted a message Wednesday urging employees to stay home indefinitely.

"At this time, we are focusing on assessing the full extent of the storm's impact on all of our patient care, research, and education facilities," reads a message on the research center's website. "Please do not report to work."

The rest of the center's website and email server is down, and calls to phones connected to the hospital end in a busy signal.

"I think the major problem is that there's no communication at all," said Krogsgaard, who was unable to access her 13th floor lab Tuesday and has heard nothing from the center's administrators. "That's the worst. And you can't get in. There's nothing you can do."

The center's animal facility, where mice and rats specially bred for human disease research are kept in warmed cages, is located in the basement of the flooded building. It's unclear if the animals survived.

"It's overwhelming," said Krogsgaard, who breeds genetically engineered mice to investigate therapies for human melanoma. "It would probably take a year to rebuild the colony. But I know people with more complicated lines, and it would take them even longer."

The damage at NYU could also make it hard for researchers compete for federal research funds, which have become increasingly hard to secure.

"It's going to be hard to publish," said Krogsgaard, explaining how research projects will grind to a halt as labs begin to rebuild. "It's going to look like we've made no progress."

Krogsgaard said her lab members, whom she reached by phone and personal email, are safe.

"At least we know everyone's OK," she said, lamenting Sandy's wake of destruction along the coast. "So many people have lost their homes."

Sandy spawned record-breaking tides around lower Manhattan, prompting power outages from East 39th Street to the lower tip of Manhattan. NYU Langone Medical Center is located at East 33rd Street on 1st Avenue. The 50-year-old building sits at sea level atop an extended bulkhead in Kipp's Bay.

The hospital had at least two backup generators: one in the basement and one on the roof, according to a spokeswoman. But basement flooding caused one generator to fail, and cut off the fuel supply to the other.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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