By Rebecca Warlow ~
A new documentary, First in Human: The Trials of Building 10, produced by McGee Media for the Discovery Channel, explores the unique nature of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Clinical Center, the world’s largest medical research facility, and the relationship between the medical staff, researchers, and patients as they seek ground breaking new treatments through clinical trials. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is pleased to have been able to contribute film and photographs from its historical collections to this new documentary, which airs on Discovery Channel beginning on August 10.
On July 6, 1953, the NIH Clinical Center welcomed its first patient, Charles Meredith, a Maryland farmer. Meredith arrived at the Clinical Center to participate in a study on hormone treatments for prostate cancer. His admission to the Clinical Center was the start of a unique research effort by the Federal government. Just 13 years earlier, in 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the new campus of the National Institute of Health, he said, “…the Federal Government has indicated it can do indefinitely more—that disease disregards state lines as well as national lines… (and that) in such cases the Public Health Service is helping and must continue even more greatly to help.” The NIH Clinical Center was designed to do just what President Roosevelt had envisioned in his speech: to do even more to help combat disease.
The NIH Clinical Center was the first ever government-run hospital that focused primarily on research into diseases rather than just on patient care. The Clinical Center was a research center in which patients who had exhausted all other options could participate in research for new treatments. With 500 patient beds and many more laboratories in one facility, the Clinical Center brought together patients, doctors, scientists, and others in one place designed to find treatments for chronic and acute disease.
Because of the unique nature of the NIH Clinical Center, researchers were able to collaborate, share information, and, in an emerging health crisis, to bring together a variety of resources quickly which led to many new and groundbreaking treatments that have had a worldwide impact on health.
It was at the Clinical Center in 1957 that chemotherapy was first used as a treatment for cancer by Dr. Min Chiu Li. Although Dr. Li had success, his work was initially not accepted by the wider medical community. A few years later Drs. Emil Frei and Emil Freireich used intensive combination chemotherapy in a clinical trial to treat acute lymphatic leukemia. Frei and Freireich’s research led to more effective treatments that cure the majority of childhood leukemia cases. The perseverance of NIH researchers working with patients at the Clinical Center changed the way in which cancer was treated and led to many lives being saved.
In the mid-20th century across the United States, patients were contracting Hepatitis following blood transfusions. Researchers in the Clinical Center Blood Bank, led by Harvey Altar, developed lifesaving tests that screened for Hepatitis B in the blood supply and led to the virtual elimination of cases in which patients contracted Hepatitis B through blood transfusions. The same researchers working in the Clinical Center along with others working outside of NIH also eventually identified Hepatitis C and a test for screening for Hepatitis C in blood banks.
NIH researchers quickly realized that the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s was a new health crisis that required their attention. Researchers from across NIH came together, often stopping other projects, to research this new and complex disease and to search for treatments. NIH researchers working with patients in the Clinical Center and with research colleagues across the world identified the retrovirus that caused AIDS, now known as HIV/AIDS, while other NIH researchers identified AZT as the first antiretroviral drug used to treat AIDS.
The discoveries discussed above are just a few of the many that have occurred because of research in the Clinical Center. Having laboratories and patients in the same facility and near the many institutes and centers on the NIH campus has created an innovative space for medical discoveries that have impacted the world.
The History of Medicine Division invites you to explore our online collection of images related to the Clinical Center, and to visit the History of Medicine Division to research additional images made possible in part through our longstanding collaboration with the Office of NIH History, NIH Intramural Research Program.