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When Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast last week, thousands of valuable research mice and rats at New York University’s Langone Medical Center perished as the unprecedented storm surge flooded the basement of the school’s Smilow Research Center.

At Penn, where the campus was largely spared major damage from Sandy, research animals remained safe in all of more than two dozen animal housing facilities.

However, for one Perelman School of Medicine professor, the loss of the NYU research mice was also a “bizarre déjà vu.”

Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine David Roth, who came to Penn just last year from NYU, held a faculty position at Baylor College of Medicine at the time when Tropical Storm Allison brought heavy rain to the Houston area in 2001.

Because of the storm, he lost several hundred cages of mice, as well as irreplaceable reagents that thawed in freezers when the power went out — as also happened at NYU during Sandy.

He explained that a setback like this can pose a “very real threat” to the careers of those who rely heavily on animal experiments to complete research — especially since the competition for government funding is significantly steeper now than it was when Allison hit Baylor.

“It’s pretty frightening,” Roth said. “My heart really goes out to these folks at NYU.”

Although Penn’s research animals — many of which are genetically-modified mice — remained unharmed, Roth said it is important for the University “to make sure we examine our systems for weak links and try to strengthen them before everyone forgets about this and worries about the next thing.”

For his part, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Director of Penn Gene Targeting Tobias Raabe stayed in the lab overnight when Sandy hit, and was prepared to transfer valuable frozen stem cell clones — an intermediate step in the process of generating mice deficient in a specific gene — out of freezers and into tanks filled with liquid nitrogen.

Generating genetically modified mice is a costly, painstaking and time-consuming process that consists of many challenging technical steps.

These custom-made “mouse models” enable researchers to experimentally understand molecular mechanisms of disease and study functions of specific genes in the context of a biological process.

Raabe said that it takes between one and two years to build one custom mouse model strain from scratch, and the process costs a total of $30,000 to $50,000.

Investigators can freeze sperm or embryos from their mice, although reestablishing a workable mouse colony from preserved intermediate materials still takes anywhere from six months to two years, depending on how many rounds of breeding are required to achieve the final desired genetic background.

“It’s not unusual for immunologists to have complex mice that require triple, or even quadruple crosses to generate,” Roth said.

Fifth-year doctoral candidate in Immunology Shaun O’Brien generated one such complex mouse model by strategically crossing three types of mice to obtain one that combined genetically engineered features from all three.

“I can’t even imagine what I’d do if I lost my mice,” he said. “My project would be dead … I would probably quit grad school.”

As NYU continues to deal with the aftermath of Sandy, Roth added in a hopeful note that he was able to “restart and somehow survive” the damage he incurred from Allison.

And a few minutes after despairing at the hypothetical prospect of losing his own mice, O’Brien was already discussing alternative experimental plans that didn’t involve his most complex mice — a kind of conversation that he imagines is currently taking place in each lab affected at NYU.

Maine’s Jackson Laboratory, a major nonprofit distributor of genetically engineered mouse strains, said in an email that “we are committed to offering support to the research community in the affected areas and continue to reach out daily to offer help in any way we can during their recovery.”

Roth added that “scientists are generous people and I think people at Penn will come forward with reagents [too]. I would certainly be happy to donate anything I have.”

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