Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman
In 1962, Leonard Hayflick created and then froze roughly 800 tiny ampules of what he dubbed WI-38 cells. Each petite glass vial contained between 1.5 million and 2 million cells. Each cell in each vial, once thawed, had the capacity to divide another 40 times. Hayflick had created a supply of cells that, for practical purposes, was almost infinite.
Hayflick’s WI-38 cells would become the first normal, non-cancerous cells available in virtually unlimited quantities to scientists, and, as a result, the best-characterized normal cells available to this day. They would become the basis for vaccines that have immunized hundreds of millions of people worldwide against polio, rubella, rabies, chicken pox, and measles. Today approximately two billion people have directly benefitted from the use of WI-38 and other cell strains created using Hayflick’s methods.WI-38 would also spawn a lifetime feud between Hayflick and his superiors at the Wistar, and an epochal fight with the US government, first over whether the cells were safe to use to make vaccines and then over who owned them.
The Cells and the Scientist combines scientific discovery, rivalry, greed and drama; abortion and vaccine politics; and timely questions about the tradeoff between socially beneficial medical research and the rights of individuals. Remarkably, both Leonard Hayflick and the 83-year-old mother of the fetus that gave rise to WI-38 are still alive. The mother lives near Stockholm. She was not asked permission for the use of her fetus and has never earned a penny from the contribution.
The tale of WI-38 is a profoundly human one, laced with real effects on untold numbers of lives. Consider this irony: cells derived from an aborted fetus have prevented tens of millions of miscarriages that otherwise would have been caused by the rubella virus, which infects foetuses in the womb.