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Vol. LVIII, No. 17
August 25, 2006

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A Year After Katrina, Grantee Looks Forward to Normalcy

Nearly a year ago, immunologist Dr. Seth Pincus fled Children's Hospital in New Orleans in the wake, literally, of Hurricane Katrina.

He had stayed with patients in the uptown hospital throughout the August 2005 hurricane. In the chaos — and loss of power and other services that followed — he helped get patients moved to safe facilities elsewhere. As the hospital's research director, he agonized over giving pentobarbital to laboratory rats and mice (so they would not die of dehydration and starvation), as well as leaving behind hundreds of fragile blood and tissue samples. He used liquid nitrogen to freeze what he could, then left and set up temporary base in Baton Rouge.

Katrina-survivor and NIH grantee Dr. Seth Pincus says he learned the hard way about protecting research samples, animals and subjects from disaster.  
Returning to Children's as soon as possible to see what could be retrieved, he found the cardboard sample holders thick with mold — so much that 3 weeks of steady work were required to get rid of it. But a lot of the samples he had frozen with liquid nitrogen were still fine.

When CSR Scientific Review Administrator Mary Clare Walker called to tell him that, if he was too burdened, he shouldn't feel he needed to carry out his commitment to chair a November meeting of the HIV/AIDS vaccine study section, he says he nearly cried. "Please," he said to her, "I want to do it. It's the only semblance of normality I have left!"

He did chair the November meeting. And the March and July ones. He also did a full load of reviews of re-submissions. CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa praised his dedication: "As a chair with review experience that spans a decade, Dr. Pincus understands the delicate and vital dynamics of peer review in his study section," he said. "Grant applicants benefit from this kind of continuity and we are very grateful he served despite the overwhelming situation. It is heartening to note that Dr. Pincus is one of many NIH heroes who give so much to ensure the vitality of NIH peer reviews."

Pincus also managed, in his spare time, to help NIH understand the unique needs of its researchers in New Orleans. He estimated that Children's suffered $50 million in losses, but added that it was "pretty lucky to be on high ground, whereas Tulane and LSU were in the flood zone. We gave space to 80 investigators. We gave them a place to come in and start to get back to work."

About 280 principal investigators in New Orleans had support from NIH grants when Katrina struck. "Some of the best have taken their work and their grants elsewhere," Pincus said. "Drug company-financed clinical trials were often so disrupted that they have been abandoned."

Initially, NIH helped out by extending the deadlines for research applications for those hit by Katrina, and by offering aid from some of the institutes. NIH also used administrative supplements to help out, on a case-by-case basis.

In July, after receiving assessments of what research remained or was being revived, NIH offered a simplified method by which its grantees still working in New Orleans could obtain 1-year extensions of their grants, with the possibility of an additional $50,000 supplement to cover unexpected storm-related costs.

With that aid, Pincus said, he's looking forward to forgetting about Katrina and carrying out "a normal program of research" once again.

Forgetting Katrina? Well, not quite. Pincus learned the hard way about protecting research samples, animals and subjects from disaster, and he's gotten fairly evangelical about it. He has devised a number of disaster preparation suggestions that were published in The Scientist last December. To them he would add an opportunistic footnote. Remember all that mold he was fighting? Now he and other researchers in New Orleans are planning a long-range study of the impact of mold on human health. He is telling potential funding groups that New Orleans — where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 46 percent of the homes inspected showed mold growth — presents a major opportunity for such a study.

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