The Army's Fort Detrick, which over the years has seen generations of germ warfare reserachers come and go, is now housing a civilian facility that is producing the deadly AIDS virus.
Each week technicians at the Frederick Cancer Research Institute, located in the middle of the post, produce 250 liters of fluid containing the virus believed to cause the deadly Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
In a tightly secured laboratory, with its own filtered air supply, workers -- wearing scrub suits, safety boots, respirators and gloves -- extract, purify and package the virus for shipment to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.
Providing the AIDS virus for researchers looking for a vaccine or cure for the disease that strikes homosexuals mostly has been a major medical mission of the little-known facility since doctors isolated the virus last spring. There are five private facilities elsewhere in the country licensed by the Public Health Service to produce AIDS virus.
Currently there are about 350 government employes and about 850 independently contracted workers involved in research projects under way in the Fort Detrick research facility's 67 buildings. In the last fiscal year, the center spent $850,000 on AIDS research, an amount expected to jump to $2 million this year.
AIDS is a disease that attacks the body's immune system, leaving victims vulnerable to potentially fatal infections and certain types of cancers. The disease, for which there is no known cure, primarily strikes homosexual men, Haitian immigrants, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs.
Since the disease was identified 3 1/2 years ago, 6,330 cases have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. As of Oct. 8, 2,966 victims, or 47 percent, had died, most within four years of diagnosis. Maryland, with 64 reported cases -- including 42 deaths -- ranks 12th in the number of reported AIDS cases, while the top five states are New York, California, Florida, New Jersey and Texas, CDC spokesman Chuck Fallis said.
Researchers at the Bethesda institute and French scientists independently identified the AIDS virus this spring.
"Once the evidence became convincing enough that this was indeed the virus responsible for AIDS, we started producing the virus up here to determine its specific properties," said Dr. Berge Hampar, head of the research center 40 miles north of Washington.
The center's electron microscope was the first in the world to actually show a picture of the AIDS virus, Hampar said.
"We set up diagnostic tests of immune systems ," he said. "These tests are now being used to screen out blood donors in much the same way as was done earlier to keep hepatitus carriers from infecting others."
Hampar, however, does not hold out any hope for the quick, easy development of an AIDS vaccine.
"The AIDS virus adapts like the flu virus," he said.
"It will do whatever it can to develop a symbiotic relationship with the host in order to ensure its own survival. The whole adaptive nature of a virus makes vaccine development much more complex. The virus and its components can change. We just don't know all the answers yet."
The research center's buildings were transferred in 1972 from the Army to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare when President Nixon ordered that the labs previously used to manufacture and stockpile lethal biological weapons be converted to peacetime work that focused primarily on cancer investigation.
Those scientists involved in the facility's AIDS virus production have their blood screened each year for the virus. Their serum is kept for later comparisons.
"There is no hysteria among scientists. They know the risks and they take the precautions," Hampar said.
A spokesman at the CDC in Atlanta stressed that none of the doctors, nurses or hospital personnel caring for the 6,300 AIDS victims nationally have contracted the disease.
Despite the discovery earlier this month of the AIDS virus in the saliva of some individuals known to associate with AIDS victims, medical researchers say there is no evidence that infection is possible from casual contact with an AIDS victim or someone in a high-risk group who has the virus in his saliva.
Because of its relative isolation and large laboratory facilities, the Frederick Cancer Institute is the ideal site for special, intense programs like the current AIDS exploration.
"We are looked at as a rapid deployment force," Hampar said.
Besides the current work with AIDS, scientists at the facility are also exploring molecular aspects of cancer. Under the direction of Dr. George Vanderwood, a group is studying how an oncogene -- a piece of genetic material capable of changing a healthy cell to a cancerous one -- works to alter cell structure.
In this way, the particular destructive mutations associated with bladder, colon, and leukemia cancer are studied, Hampar said.
There is also a $1.5 million project investigating at chemical and environmental carcenogens and focusing on the role of nitrates in foods. The center was also among the first to successfully clone the diphtheria toxin in efforts to further study that disease, Hampar said.
The facility also breeds about 600,000 rats and mice a year, half of them used in experiments there or at the Bethesda center. The rest are used by non-government agencies around the country.
The animals are kept in a germ-free environment to guarantee that diseased rodents will not alter the outcome of lab tests or endanger other species.