Friends Research Institute promotes health and well-being through research, treatment, and grants administration.
In the spring of 1955, M. Edythe Klotzman and her husband Aaron gathered a group of their friends together in Baltimore to create a new non-profit organization – Friends of Psychiatric Research, more commonly known as Friends. They wanted to create an organization dedicated to fostering research to improve the lives of people with mental illness. They also believed that an independent non-profit research institution was the best vehicle for bringing together the variety of people whose different talents could shed light on socio-medical problems. Aaron personally contributed $2,500, representing 1/3 of the total first year’s operating budget.
Research on the Treatment of Serious and Persistent Mental Illness
At the outset, Friends of Psychiatric Research was based at Spring Grove State Hospital fostering research on mental disorders. In 1960, Friends received funding for its first federal research grant. By 1962, the organization was associated with Springfield State Hospital, and in 1964, Friends was appointed to conduct research for all seven of the State of Maryland’s state psychiatric hospitals.
During Friends’ association with the State of Maryland, there were a number of notable accomplishments. Researchers completed a collaborative outpatient study of the treatment of schizophrenia with participants from Maryland State Psychiatric Hospitals. Drs. Albert Kurland, Thomas Hanlon, and Kay Ota in particular conducted an important comparative effectiveness trial of different anti-psychotic medications for the treatment of schizophrenia. Their research also examined the use of anti-depressant therapy in this patient population. In addition, this team examined other important areas of the treatment of serious and persistent mental disorders.
Friends instituted a “night hospital” at Spring Grove Hospital for women on the road to recovery from mental health problems who still needed the support of the hospital on a daily basis. These women worked during the day and returned “home” to the Hospital each evening. This program was one of the first such programs in the United States. Friends also sponsored two vocational rehabilitation residences for developmentally challenged children in downtown Baltimore.
For approximately ten years, beginning in 1967, Friends operated two group homes for men and women with mental health problems in Baltimore, Maryland. More than 500 clients who lived in the homes received counseling, participated in social adjustment programs and, when possible, held jobs and contributed their earnings to the homes’ operating expenses. About 20% of the clients were able to return to the community as self-supporting individuals.
Friends helped administer the Veterans Administration (VA) – National Institute of Mental Health grant for a multi-site lithium carbonate clinical trial for bipolar disorder at 22 VA hospitals nationwide. The VA’s Central Neuropsychiatric Research Laboratory under the direction of Dr. James Klett oversaw this important study.
Findings from pharmacotherapy studies and group homes demonstrated that people with serious and persistent mental illness could be treated in the community to permit their reintegration in society and at much lower cost than residing in state institutions. These findings contributed to emerging deinstitutionalization trends in the United States.
As its research projects became more diverse and numerous, the name of the organization was changed to Friends Medical Science Research Center, Inc. Friends’ reputation was growing as well. Physicians, other health professionals, and principal investigators in Maryland were approaching Friends to administer research projects for them.
Heroin and Other Opioid Addiction
Friends made major contributions to the study of heroin addiction and its treatment from the early days of the heroin epidemic in the 1960s. In June 1964, the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, aware of the growing need to evaluate drug treatment programs in the United States, sought Friends’ assistance, thrusting the organization into the national spotlight and into the newly emerging world of electronic data collection.
Dr. David Nurco, who joined Friends in the mid-1960s, began studying the impact of drug abuse on families and the community, establishing the Friends Social Research Center (SRC) as the organization’s primary research site, until the opening of its Los Angeles office in the 1970s. Since its inception, researchers at the SRC have focused their work on determining the nature, correlates, and consequences of drug abuse and developing effective treatment interventions.
In 1963, Friends Medical Laboratory was established to detect heroin and other substance use through urine testing. The laboratory was used in research conducted by Drs. Nurco, Hanlon, and colleagues to examine approaches to better provide community supervision of individuals on parole and probation. It was also used in clinical trials of early opioid antagonists (cyclazocine and naloxone) in this population. The laboratory subsequently provided services to substance abuse treatment programs and private industry throughout the State of Maryland. Researchers in the lab pioneered a technique for testing urine specimens for 36 opioids and other substances. The Friends laboratory still operates today as a corporation separate from FRI, serving as a community partner in the treatment of drug use disorders.
In 1971, Dr. John Krantz, one of Friends’ original Board members, recognized the need to treat drug addiction as a disease. His dream was to provide treatment for adolescents with substance use problems, a cause for which he personally raised $167,000. Friends secured additional state and federal funding to provide treatment for substance using youth. This marked the beginning of Epoch Counseling Center, located in metropolitan Baltimore, which provided outpatient counseling for adolescents and adults with alcohol and drug problems.
In 1975, an increasing number of requests for assistance with grants administration from VA hospitals in California led to the establishment of a Friends branch in Tarzana, California. At that time, Friends, through Dr. Klett’s VA research group, assisted with a federally-funded VA cooperative study of a long-acting opioid pharmacotherapy, called LAAM, for the treatment of heroin addiction. This study was funded by President Nixon’s Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention led by the nation’s first drug czar, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, now a senior research scientist at FRI. The study brought Dr. Walter Ling to Friends for a 40-year collaboration between his research group at UCLA and Friends to examine treatments for opioid and other substance use disorders.
Throughout the 1980s, principal investigators involved in extramural studies funded by the National Institutes of Health began requesting Friends to administer their grants, including pharmaceutical studies. In addition, during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, FRI investigators continued to expand their research work in the identification and treatment of opioid and other drug use disorders, focusing on pharmacotherapy, psychosocial treatments, bio-behavioral HIV interventions, and prevention. In 1996, Friends updated its name to Friends Research Institute (FRI) to reflect is broader research focus.
In 1997, through the tireless efforts of Dr. Steven Shoptaw, FRI established Safe House, which continuously operated until 2015. Safe House provided low-cost, safe, and decent housing to people living with HIV/AIDS who also may have had unstable housing, a mental illness, and/or substance problem. Safe House helped this vulnerable community by reducing the barriers to care.
In 2008, FRI assumed responsibility for an existing clinic in Los Angeles, renamed the Friends Community Center, which operates service programs and conducts research studies focused on reducing substance use (including methamphetamine) and HIV risks with individuals who experience multiple health disparities. The site is located on the border of Hollywood and West Hollywood.
Today, an interdisciplinary group of FRI investigators continue to conduct research on substance misuse and its intersection with criminal justice, HIV/AIDS, health, and mental health. Their work has garnered widespread recognition resulting from its contribution to both scientific knowledge and clinical practice. Throughout its history and into the future, FRI is committed to contributing to the well-being of society through studies designed to discover effective and scalable approaches to alleviate some of the most vexing health and societal problems.