NCI Suspends Frederick Lab Re-Competition Citing Moonshot, Zika and Ebola Research

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NCI has suspended re-competition of the the $400 million-a-year operations and technical support contract for the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.

A brief notice of suspension was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website at 4:06 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, in the final business hours of the final day of the fiscal year.

No reasons for suspension were provided in the notice.

Asked for comment, NCI officials said the re-competition was delayed because of the laboratory’s potential role in the Vice President Joe Biden’s Moonshot Program and development of vaccines for the Zika and Ebola viruses.

“NCI received many comments from the public, the biomedical research community, and formal advisors to the institute concerning re-competition of NCI’s FFRDC contract,” said Richard Folkers, communications manager at Frederick. “In addition, NCI is judiciously responding to pressing national needs and newly established cancer research goals. Suspending the re-competition process will better allow NCI to rapidly respond to those needs and give its leaders a chance to thoughtfully consider recommendations it has received on how to best put the FFRDC on a path to greater research success in the years ahead.

“Since the re-competition period was announced, the FFRDC has been rapidly responding to emerging health crises, including Ebola and Zika. For example, the FFRDC was tasked with the production of an experimental Zika vaccine for clinical trial use, a process expected to continue through the 2017 calendar year. In addition, ideas generated by the Vice President’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, including recently announced work with NCI’s Genomic Data Commons, have already affected FFRDC operations.”

The Frederick lab is operated by Leidos Biomedical Research Inc.—formerly known as SAIC-Frederick—the same contractor that has run the lab since 1995.

The current contract, which was awarded in 2008, is scheduled to end in September 2018 (The Cancer Letter, June 12, 2015).

Leidos received $400.2 million to run the lab in fiscal 2014. According to a recent job posting, Leidos said it employs about 1,900 staff and manages a $450 million annual operating budget.

In the past, NCI directors have sheltered their pet projects from peer review by funding them as subcontracts of the SAIC contract. The lab was designated a national laboratory in February 2012, two years after Harold Varmus became the NCI director.To align the contractor with the institute, Varmus created the Frederick National Laboratory Advisory Committee. (The Cancer Letter, Feb. 28, 2014).

The prospect of delaying re-competition was raised at an advisory committee meeting May. 11 (The Cancer Letter, June 17)

“This competition comes at an interesting time in history, that is to say right in the middle of the moonshot,” Joe Gray, chair of the advisory committee, said at that meeting. “It’s not clear to me what role Frederick is going to play in this moonshot project, but it is a fast track enterprise. One of the things that you are running the risk of is changing management right in the middle of the time when Frederick would be really well positioned to play an important role in moonshot activities.”

Gray is the associate director for translational research at the Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute.

The lab, located on a 68-acre campus in Frederick, Md., is one of 41 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. FFRDCs receive 70 percent or more of their financial support from the federal government. It is the only national laboratory dedicated solely to biomedical research.

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