Revisiting the Med Center 10 years after Allison

June 9, 2011 2:35:25 PM PDT
Ten years ago, Tropical Storm Allison dumped about two feet of rain on top of the Texas Medical Center in a 24-hour period.

The storm caused $1.5 billion in damage to the Medical Center alone.

A 20-foot wall of water swept through the tunnel system in the Texas Medical Center. It sent Houston's most advanced research labs back to the dark ages.

That dirty wave of floodwater swept through the halls ceiling high, washing away decades of medical research. Hundreds of scientists lost their life's work. Now, we have the story of two of them, 10 years after the great flood.

"Of course there were tears and a lot of uncertainty on the future," Dr. Michael Blackburn said.

Dr. Blackburn's work at the University of Texas Medical School is to find medicines to save people with lethal lung diseases. But his 600 lab mice he bred for research all drowned during Tropical Storm Allison.

"We lost the animals, we lost the materials that we generated from the animals; we basically lost everything, as did hundreds of other researchers," Dr. Blackburn said.

At Baylor, Dr Kent Osborne was staring at his breast cancer research; the samples that weren't floating were thawing in powerless freezers.

"We had 150,000 frozen tumors from 100,000 patients," Dr. Osborne. "All the freezers were up against one wall; they'd been hit by a tremendous force of water and I saw them floating around in the water and I felt pretty low. We would have had an opportunity to really study breast cancer from a genetic point of view."

Ten years later, as he rebuilds his research, he's beginning gene studies on the samples he does have.

"We would have been able to make some advances. How many of those would have resulted in a new treatment is anyone's guess, but it would have pointed us in the right direction for sure," Dr. Osborne said.

At UT, Dr. Blackwell has been more fortunate.

"Tropical Storm Allison forced us to rethink how we did science," Dr. Blackwell said.

They came up with a new way to do their lung disease research. And 10 years later, their discoveries have led to two new drugs being tested in human trials.

"The silver lining was that it forced us to conduct our science in a different way that was probably more efficient and led to discoveries in a more rapid manner," Dr. Blackwell said.

In the world of research, setbacks are common, but no one at the Texas Medical Center expected the life-altering impact of a tropical storm named Allison.

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