The non-profit research organization’s original charter was focused on advancing Southern industry, but May wanted his gift to focus on improving the welfare of the region’s residents. This became the seed money that launched Southern Research’s cancer program, headed by Dr. Howard Skipper.
Skipper built a world-class research team at Southern Research that made significant advances in the field of cancer research. Their work in the 1950s and 1960s defined the fundamentals of effective cancer chemotherapy at a time when there was widespread skepticism about the practice. Skipper also developed the principles of combination chemotherapy to counter resistance and reduce toxicity.
The Mobile businessman later established the Ben May Charitable Trust and funded the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Chicago.
Photo shows Chairman Tom Martin presenting Dr. Howard Skipper with a key to a lab.
Kettering founded Delco and headed research at General Motors for 27 years. He was a noted inventor, with nearly 200 patents. His broad range of interests included medical research. He joined another former GM leader, Alfred P. Sloan, to found the Sloan Kettering Institute, which became one of the nation’s leading biomedical research organizations.
Kettering took a special interest in the fledging Southern Research, thanks to a friendship with Chairman Tom Martin. His first visit to the Birmingham facility was in 1947. Before long, Kettering was profoundly interested in the work being done in cancer by Dr. Howard Skipper and his team.
Kettering’s visit on Nov. 12, 1947 was tied to the dedication of Southern Research’s first new building — “Laboratory No. 5.”
Dr. William Murray’s first year as director ushered in a construction boom at Southern Research. The first permanent new building on the campus, Laboratory No. 5, was expanded to house a machine shop and heavy metallurgical equipment.
Planning began for another building, which would house the organic chemistry, plastics, textiles and paint technology groups.
Robert I. Ingalls, chairman of the Ingalls Iron Works and Ingalls Shipbuilding Co., offered to pay the entire cost of the structure — $150,000.
Cornerstone ceremonies for the Robert I. Ingalls Laboratory were held on Nov. 12, 1948. A copper box placed in the cornerstone during construction of the Ingalls lab contained artifacts that reflected the organization’s early work – a building board made from sugar cane waste, a synthetic perfume compound made from citrus by-products, specimens of Southern pig iron treated with zirconium, and much more.
Early the next year, Southern Research trustees approved a plan to add two additional stories to the building.
Ingalls was interested in the mission of Southern Research from the beginning, and through generous personal and Ingalls Foundation contributions, five buildings were constructed on the the organization’s campus.
Photo shows benefactor Robert Ingalls speaking a Southern Research ceremony for a building bearing his name.
Once he launched the cancer research program, Dr. Howard Skipper began to add talented researchers who made lasting contributions to the field. Dr. Lee Bennett and Linda Simpson (Herren) were among the first, and each worked at Southern Research for more than 50 years.
Under Skipper’s overall direction, Drs. Frank Schabel, John Montgomery and Bennet headed the three major departments involved in cancer research — Chemotherapy, Organic Chemistry, and Biochemistry, respectively. This leadership structure would stay in place for 27 years.
A major advance stemming from the cancer work done at Southern Research in the 1950s and 1960s was in chemotherapy. Skipper and his team developed the fundamental principles of effective cancer chemotherapy and showed that a combination of anticancer drugs could overcome resistance with optimal dose scheduling.
Early in 1952, Southern Research Chairman Tom Martin began discussions with Charles Kettering, the inventor and patron of medical research, and Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, about a new laboratory building to support the Birmingham organization’s cancer research program.
Kettering offered to provide $200,000 of the projected cost of the building through his foundation if Martin could round up the remaining $100,000. Martin met with Birmingham businessman John E. Meyer, whose family foundation, the Robert R. Meyer Foundation, agreed to make the gift.
At the same time, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation agreed to provide substantial funding to advance the cancer work being conducted at Southern Research under the partnership with the Sloan-Kettering Institute.
Sloan turned the first shovel at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new lab on June 26, 1953. The five-story building was completed in December 1953.
The Kettering-Meyer Laboratory, made possible with contributions from the Charles Kettering and Robert Meyer Foundations, was completed in 1953. Just five years later, a second Kettering-Meyer lab was completed to support the expanding cancer program at Southern Research.
It was during the 1950s that the cancer work of Dr. Howard Skipper and his team at Southern Research began to receive national recognition. The organization’s budget for health-related research in 1950 was $73,000; a decade later, the figure had grown to $1.7 million. Significant advances were made during this time frame.
In the 1950s, businessman Harry Frueauff Jr. approached Dr. Howard Skipper, who headed Southern Research’s cancer research program, about a gift from his family’s foundation, which had begun funding medical research. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship.
Frueauff’s father had managed Montgomery Light and Water Power Co. until 1923, when it was acquired by Alabama Power. Harry Jr. lived in Birmingham and became interested in Southern Research and its cancer research.
Over the years, the Charles A. Frueauff Foundation made multiple gifts to Southern Research. In 1961, the Frueauff Laboratory, the first of two facilities bearing the family name, opened on the organization’s campus.
Photo shows Harry Frueauff Jr., third from left, at the 1961 dedication of the Southern Research lab bearing his name.
Building on years of dramatic growth, Southern Research’s cancer laboratories expand yet again with construction of the Daniel Laboratory, made possible by a major contribution from the Daniel Foundation in honor of Charles E. Daniel, founder of Daniel Construction Co.
Photo shows the Daniel Lab under construction
During the 1960s, Southern Research’s cancer research program was beginning to outgrow the organization’s available space. Seven laboratories had been erected between 1953 and 1965. Another was on its way thanks to businessman and philanthropist Harry Frueauff and the Charles A Frueauff Foundation.
The Charles A. Frueauff Foundation was a major supporter of Southern Research’s cancer program, having made possible another lab bearing the Frueauff name that opened in 1961.
The Frueauff Laboratory for Pharmacology and Toxicology was constructed on Southern Research’s Birmingham campus in 1969.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Skipper and his team were important collaborators with the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and the National Cancer Institute, helping to identify the most promising areas for research.
Skipper’s team developed quantitative animal models to study the effects of drugs on cells that were killed and on cells that survived chemotherapy. Skipper used these models to develop protocols for the administration of drugs or combinations of drugs to kill malignant cells faster than they could grow back. His studies demonstrated that imprecise doses of anticancer drugs could not eliminate the malignant cell population.
Skipper also developed the theory that a specific dose of a given drug will kill the same percentage, not the same number, of cancer cells in a wide variety of cancer cell populations.
For this work, Skipper won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award — a high-level scientific prize — in 1974.
Skipper’s many honors include the Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research in 1980, the Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Foundation for Cancer Research in 1982 and the American Cancer Society National Annual Award, also in 1982.
Triazene dacarbazine, developed by Dr. Fulmer Shealy and others in the early 1960s, became Southern Research’s first drug to achieve approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in May 1975. It was originally marketed by Bayer as DTIC-Dome.
Dacarbazine, a chemotherapy drug classified as an alkylating agent, is on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines.
It is used to treat metastatic malignant melanoma, Hodgkin’s disease, soft tissue sarcomas, neuroblastoma, fibrosarcomas, rhabdomyosarcoma, islet cell carcinoma, and medullary carcinoma of the thyroid.
Lomustine is primarily used in the treatment of brain tumors, both primary (developed in the brain) and metastatic (spread from another source). It has also been used for Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as in the treatment of melanoma, lung and colon cancer.
It was originally marketed under the name CeeNu but in 2014 was rebranded Gleostine.
Lomustine is a chemotherapy drug classified as an alkylating agent. Alkylation damages the DNA of cells, preventing them from dividing and triggering their death.
It is a nitrosurea compound, which unlike most chemotherapy drugs, can cross the blood-brain barrier, making it useful in treating brain tumors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved carmustine — marketed under the trade name BiCNU — in March 1977. This chemotherapy drug damages the DNA of cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and triggering their death.
Carmustine is used in the treatment of certain types of brain tumors, including glioblastoma, brainstem glioma, medulloblastoma, astrocytoma, ependymoma, and metastatic brain tumors.
Its wafer formulation, the Gliadel wafer, is implanted into a surgical cavity after the removal of a brain tumor to release carmustine.
Other cancers treated with carmustine include multiple myeloma, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, melanoma, lung cancer and colon cancer.
The drug was developed by Drs. John Montgomery and Tom Johnston, and synthesized in the lab by Shep McCaleb.
The Cancer Cause and Prevention Laboratory is completed on 21st Street South in Birmingham in 1977 as Southern Research’s most expensive lab building to date.
The lab is one of the first non-government facilities specifically designed to meet the stringent requirements for carcinogenesis research.
Southern Research new cancer chemotherapy facility was completed and dedicated to Skipper, who, with his team, had demonstrated the fundamentals of effective cancer chemotherapy. One of the speakers at the dedication ceremony that day was Dr. Vincent DeVita Jr., director of the National Cancer Institute, a close collaborator with Southern Research.
DeVita praised the contributions of Southern Research and Skipper in the fight against cancer.
“No institution in this country — probably not in the world — has a more distinguished place in the history of cancer chemotherapy than Southern Research,” DeVita said. “And that is largely due to the man we are here to honor today, Dr. Howard Skipper. The impact of Dr. Skipper’s work reverberated across the field like a whipcrack and changed the field practically overnight, in medical terms, from one that relied almost totally on empiricism to a field that was heavily laced with inductive reasoning.”
Photo shows Dr. Howard Skipper
Fludarabine — also known under its brand name, Fludura — is used in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), including CLL that has not responded to standard therapy, or recurred after therapy. It also is used as a salvage therapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and acute leukemias.
Fludarabine was first synthesized by Dr. John Montgomery and Kathleen Hewson of Southern Research in the late 1960s. U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval was granted in April 1991.
It belongs to the class of chemotherapy drugs called antimetabolites, which prevent cell division and cause cancer cells to die.
Fludarabine is on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system.
Photo shows Dr. John Montgomery
In the 1960s, Southern Research scientists including Drs. Robert Piper and Tom Johnston conducted an extensive program to produce agents for the U.S. Army that would protect soldiers from radiation. One of these agents, amifostine, was later developed as a treatment to protect patients from harmful effects of radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The drug is marketed as Ethyol.
Amifostine works by promoting the repair of damaged tissue and binding to harmful free radicals released by cells after exposure to chemotherapy.
Photo shows Dr. Robert Piper
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved clofarabine for the treatment of pediatric patients with relapsed or refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) after at least two prior regimens. The drug is marketed under the brand name Clolar.
Dr. John Montgomery, Dr. Jack Secrist and co-workers first synthesized clofarabine. It belongs to the class of chemotherapy drugs called antimetabolites, which prevent cell division and cause cancer cells to die.
At the time of its approval, Clolar was the first new leukemia treatment specifically for children in more than a decade.
Photo shows Dr. Jack Secrist, at whiteboard, speaking to members of Southern Research’s cancer team, including Dr. John Montgomery, second from left
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved pralatrexate — also known by its brand name, Folotyn — as the first treatment for a form of cancer known as Peripheral T-cell Lymphoma (PTCL), an often aggressive type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Southern Research collaborated with the Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center and SRI International on development of the drug.
“We prepared and tested many compounds before finally identifying a substance that gave favorable results,” Southern Research’s Dr. Robert Piper said about the FDA’s approval of pralatrexate.”We are very glad our compound will help alleviate human suffering and extend lives.”
Folotyn was approved under the FDA’s accelerated approval process, which allows earlier approval of drugs that meet unmet medical needs. It is approved for patients who have relapsed, or have not responded well to other forms of chemotherapy.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
Pralatrexate belongs to the class of chemotherapy drugs called antimetabolites, which prevent cell division and cause cancer cells to die. Antimetabolities are substances that interfere with DNA or RNA synthesis, disrupting cell division the growth of tumors.