A $3 million national center for controvesial experiments in genetic manipulation - the alteration of basic cell material to create new or radically different forms of life - will be built at Ft. Detrick, Md., by the National Institute of Health.
A Ft. Detrick building used by the Army until 1972 to develop biological warfare weapons from germs such as those that cause anthrax and plague will be remodeled for the genetic research project. It will incorporate the most stringent measures known to keep any unexpectedly dangerous new organisms from escaping the building, NH officials said.
The Ft. Detrick site, which officials hope will be ready by 1979, will give NH and visiting scientists what will be the nation's first major center for the study of the most complex and potentially hazaddous forms of genetic modification, a discipline that many scientists believe holds the key to fighting disease ranging from diabetes to cancer to birth defects.
But opponents of genetic manipulation say the research could result in the creations of wildly unpredictable or dangerous new life forms against which man or other living things have no natural defenses.
Concerns similiar to those prompted the Cambridge, Mass., City Council last month to forbid researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute to Technology from performing any of the most complex and potentially hazardous genetis experiments.
"We've discussed our plans in an intitial way with Frederick COunty health officials," said Dr. John Nutter, NH project coordinator. "We'll be having further discussions with local and state officials."
Dr. Charles Spicknall, Frederick County healty officer, said, "I'm not prepared to give any opinion yet. I doubt that we could really stop any project on a federal reservation. But I've reported the facts so far to state health officials, and we'll be attending another briefing at NH soon."
Other Fredrick County officials expressed surprise upon hearing of NH's plan yesterday.
"I haven't heard anything about this until now," said County Commissioner Sterling Bollinger. "I wasn't aware of any plans for a genetic research center." He said he was certain none of his five fellow commissioners were aware of the plan.
The first concerns over "the new biology" - mixing the DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid that is the stuff of genes - were raised intially by the very scientists doing the work. They voluntarily declared a moratorium on riskers studies until NH announced its safety guidelines last June.
The new guidelines forbid some experiments, including any with dangerous diease organisms. They establish four physical containment levels - P1 normal laboratory precautions) to the P4 level that requires scaled room, double doors, protective clothes, handling of organism through sealed glove boxes - where the workers insert their arms into long rubber gloves to so experiments on the other side of a protective window - and chemical treatment and sterilization of any wastes.
Also. the recombined genes may be grown only in specified host bacteria, weakened so they shouldn't be able to grow in human beings.
Category P1 is reserved for experiments in the modification of simple species, like some bacteris, that naturally interact generically. The P2 level allows scientists to work with all non-poisonous fish, snake, lizard, of frog genes. Experiments required P3 precautions involve modification of mamalian genes.
To work with the DNA of primates - monkeys or man - or with an animal tumor virus, a P4 level is required.
Both the consequent expense and the fact that some universities may not be able to do P4 research at all make a national facilities necessary, NH officials maintained. It will be used both for studies in the mainstream of genetic research and special studies to test safety precautious, as well as to train scientists and techncians to do the work safety, Dr. Nutter added.
For the same reasons, it was disclosed, work now under way on a compact P4 laboratory on the NH campuc in Bethesda has also been expanded at least four-fold, the officials said.
That laboratory, which will be ready by May or June, will be supplemented by two on NH grounds, the officials said. A similar compact unit is being in an existing building at Ft. Detrick and will be ready by mid-April or May, they said. All are much smaller, however, than the $3 million facility construction of which is set to began later this year.
The Frederick and NH laboratories will be country's first certified P4 facilities and will permit the most hazardous research, said Dr. William Gartland, head of NH's Office of Recombinant DNA Activities.
There have been no commitments to build any others yet, he said, though Hoffman-La Roche, a mojor drug-firm, is "talking about" building one at Nutley, N.J., and there "may be 18 to 20 high-containmant laboratories (already in existence) around the country," in both government and private hands, that, like the Ft. Detrick facility, could upgraded to meet the NH P4 standards.
The Ft. Detrick germ warfare facility, started in 1943, has long been controversial and resulting political pressures, which began in the 1960s, prompted President Richard Nixon to order a halt to all offensive germ warface research in 1969. His order permitted the Army to continue research into how to defend against any enemy's germ warfare attack, however.
By the time the facility wound down the bulk of its germ warfare research in 1972, there had been three deaths and more than 400 accidential infection among Army workers at the Ft. Detrick laboratory. In 1972 most of the facility became the NH's Frederick Cancer Research Center.
NH officials said that the new genetic research at Ft. Detrick will involve no agents as dangerous or infectious as those the Army used.