In spring 1976, Building 472 at Frederick Cancer Research Center buzzed with activity as crews delivered and installed scientific equipment. Girded by steam pipes and bounded on one side by a narrow, one-lane road, the hulking brick structure had been among those vacated when the biowarfare program at Fort Detrick—its previous occupant—shut down. But its new life was about to begin.
The bureaucracy of Fort Detrick had transitioned from death to life. So said the Washington Post in October 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon converted the Army base’s old biowarfare laboratories into a center for life-saving cancer research. Many observers agreed it was an ambitious, hopeful vision. But what they didn’t know is that representatives from the Department of Defense and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had been working on the transition for months.
NCI has produced a new documentary-style video marking 10 years since it gave the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research its current name.
The Biological Response Modifiers Program in Frederick had visitors. A group of well-regarded scientific experts arrived in 1991 to tour some of its laboratories and spaces. Learning about the program was only part of their goal, however. They were there to evaluate it.
The Biological Response Modifiers Program had come into its own. Gone was any thought that this was a fleeting initiative. It was a robust mix of clinical and laboratory science at the forefront of immunotherapy, what was becoming the next major method for treating cancer. The program’s capabilities expanded in the second half of the 1980s, even as its clinical trials continued to reveal insights into biological agents for cancer treatment.
Their study started to unravel the riddle of how cancers spread, demonstrating that tumors are comprised of different types of cells, or heterogeneous. Up to this point it was thought that cancer cells in a tumor were identical to each other. The work conducted by husband-and-wife Isaiah (Josh) Fidler, D.V.M., Ph.D., and Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., in Frederick would eventually be recognized as a landmark discovery that redefined the scientific understanding of tumor biology.
Sarah Hooper was hard at work in the intensive care unit at Frederick Memorial Hospital. The young nurse had joined the hospital staff in 1981—her first nursing position—and was spending her days monitoring, caring for, and helping patients in critical condition. All around her, they were struggling with respiratory problems, cardiac issues, and infections. But four beds were special. They were reserved for cancer patients participating in the Biological Response Modifiers Program.
The morning of April 20, 1981, dawned over Frederick, dismal and gray. A canopy of clouds hid the sun, and a springtime chill clung to the city, stirring into a cold breeze later in the day. Despite the ostensibly ill omen, it was an important day for biomedical research. The first patients would be admitted to the Biological Response Modifiers Program (BRMP) inpatient unit at Frederick Memorial Hospital.
It was a party of international stature. More than 300 scientists from 27 countries dined and rubbed elbows in the J. Harper Poor Mansion in Manhattan, a three-story abode that in past years had welcomed the likes of President John F. Kennedy, comedian Jack Benny, and actress Marilyn Monroe. At the center of it all were the Krims, who had invited the droves of researchers into their home for a celebration to kick off an international workshop at Rockefeller University. The subject was interferon, a class of natural proteins associated with the immune system.
Though it lasted just 15 years, Frederick’s first clinical oncology program answered multiple fundamental questions in the fledgling field of immunotherapy and primed the local medical community to become the oncology research hub it is today. The Biological Response Modifiers Program (BRMP) received formal recognition from the Department of Health and Human Services 40 years ago today, on April 27.