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.
Unsurprisingly, the new Basic Research Program at the Frederick Cancer Research Center took some time to gain momentum despite the preparations that had been made. Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., head of the program’s Immunobiology of Physical and Chemical Carcinogenesis Section at the time, recalls that her first year was dedicated to setting up her new laboratory, hiring staff, moving around, and finishing projects she had started in her former laboratory at University of Utah.
By early 1974, the concept of the first investigator-initiated research program in Frederick was firmly approved. The idea had passed through the necessary channels, and the National Cancer Institute and the Frederick Cancer Research Center set about making it a reality.
As the winter of 1973 turned to spring, the Frederick Cancer Research Center (FCRC), the forerunner to the Frederick National Laboratory and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at Frederick that exist today, neared the one-year mark since its opening. The more than 250 employees had made sound progress, given the challenges of converting the old Fort Detrick biowarfare facilities into a fledgling cancer center. Their efforts had drawn some attention, too.