A storm surge into the basement swamped some 7,000 cages of mice used for studying cancer, diabetes, brain development and other health issues. Each cage held up to five of the little rodents, and even four months later, nobody knows exactly how many perished.
Now, about 50 scientists at the NYU Langone Medical Center are going through the slow process of replacing them. What they lost in a few minutes one terrible night in October will take more than a year to recover, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
That's because, for the most part, they can't simply buy the mice off the shelf. Most were tailor-made, engineered to carry specific genetic mutations to mimic human diseases and conditions like autism. Some breeds can be found only in a few labs worldwide. Others were too new to have been shared yet with researchers elsewhere and will take many months or even two years to recreate.
Besides the mice, researchers lost precious specimens and suffered damage to sensitive equipment from the blackouts and flooding from the nearby East River. The 700-bed hospital closed for almost two months; the emergency room is still shut down.
For researcher Sergei Koralov, the flooding meant the loss of about 600 mice. Gone, for example, were his animals that helped illuminate how genetic changes in white blood cells lead to lymphoma and those he used to study what triggers chronic lung inflammation in asthma. An experiment for improving lung function was also washed away.
"I was devastated," he recalls.
Koralov has contacted scientists in the U.S., Switzerland and Germany in an effort to rebuild his mouse colonies. Scientists often share mice with other labs, which comes in handy at a time like this.
But it's not as easy as just shipping mice to New York. The mice at NYU live in a super-clean environment, and those imported from other labs carry a risk of contamination. So scientists use them to create a new generation of animals that are quarantined and checked for germs before they enter their NYU home.
Not all the mice in the basement died in the flood; those in about 600 cages were rescued about a week afterward. Their handlers had put extra food in their cages just in case before the storm. But because of contamination, new generations have to be created from them, too, in sterile surroundings.
When no mice with the right genetic makeup are available, researchers have to start from scratch. Koralov works with mice that have many genetic modifications, perhaps as many as seven per mouse, and recreating such animals can require breeding over half a dozen generations.
In all, he figures it will take two years to recover the most complicated ones. But the storm has given him the chance to take a new look at his research.
"The silver lining of the whole storm, what little there is, is the fact it allows me to refocus myself," he said. Now he can "go after what is interesting to me now, not what was interesting to me two years ago."
Much of the effort to replace the mice is taking place elsewhere. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, which distributes more than 6,000 kinds of modified mice to labs around the world, is working on at least 200 types for the New York researchers, said the lab's Stephen Linnell.
So what can be done to prepare for the next big storm?
At NYU Langone, officials will consider waterproofing strategies for one building that houses mice underground and they are working on "an aggressive evacuation plan," said Dafna Bar-Sagi, the center's vice dean for science.
A new science building is due to open in 2016, with one feature planned even before the storm: It will keep mice on the third floor.
Malcolm Ritter can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/malcolmritter