As part of an effort to streamline its vast network of facilities, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) plans to close one of its most venerable research institutions: the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C. The changes are part of the Base Realignment and Closure 2005, a strategy designed to save up to $50 billion over 20 years by closing or realigning 62 bases, including AFIP's host, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus in northwest Washington, D.C.
One beneficiary of the plan would be the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Already slated for a $1 billion facilities expansion in the president's 2006 budget request, USAMRIID stands to gain some staff from other DOD facilities and will join a center of excellence in biodefense.
But the pathology institute, with a current 820-member staff that includes about 120 scientists, would get lost in the shuffle. It began in 1862 as a museum for specimens from Civil War casualties. In 1946, Congress created AFIP, which specializes in diagnosing difficult disease cases for both military and civilian doctors. Its experts were "among the giants of pathology," and training there was "legend," says pathologist Fred Gorstein of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Recently, AFIP scientists fingered the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic influenza, identified victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and helped investigate the 2001 anthrax poisonings.
Staffers have known for a few years that DOD might close AFIP as part of efforts to eliminate civilian services, and some have moved on. Under the plan, only AFIP's renowned tissue repository and the flagship National Museum of Health and Medicine, with its displays on Civil War medicine and preserved body parts and fetuses, will remain. Diagnostic pathology tasks will be outsourced, and DOD will shift its DNA repository and forensics to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Several AFIP scientists declined to comment. But pathologist William Travis, who left in January for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, called it "a tragedy" to close "a national medical treasure." He also worries about the fate of the tissue repository, which includes unique specimens of rare tumors and infectious diseases. "It loses its value if separated from pathology expertise," he says.
The base closure plan must be approved by an independent, nine-member commission and then by Congress, which is not allowed to tinker with its recommendations.