Meredith Wadman: The 1960s abortion still protecting millions from disease

How the race to find a vaccine led to a seismic breakthrough in world medicine

An abortion that led to vaccines that have protected hundreds of millions of people? The long-buried story, flagged in a letter to the editors of Science magazine in 2012, seemed to shout to me that it ought to be made into a book. So I sought out the letter-writer, Leonard Hayflick, a vigorous, 80-something biologist living in northern California – and he told me the amazing tale of the cells that he derived from an aborted foetus in 1962.

I soon discovered that the story was full of stranger-than-fiction characters and events: strong-headed, larger-than-life scientists, orphans and Archbishops, court battles and cell “kidnappings” – and dire, once-dominant diseases that have since been quelled by vaccines.

It all began with an anonymous Swedish woman, whom I call Mrs. X. Married to a feckless husband, she had several children already. She decided she could not face having another baby. In Sweden in 1962, abortion was legal but not readily available. Most doctors refused to offer the procedure. By the time she found a sympathetic, female gynecologist, Mrs. X was four months pregnant.

The story was full of stranger-than-fiction characters and events: strong-headed, larger-than-life scientists, orphans and Archbishops, court battles and cell “kidnappings”

After the abortion, her 8-inch-long, female foetus was taken without her knowledge and its lungs dissected at the famous Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The tiny purplish organs were packed on ice and flown to Philadelphia. There, the young Leonard Hayflick worked in an elegant brownstone building on the University of Pennsylvania campus: The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. Hayflick’s brilliant, visionary and ruthless boss was the polio vaccine pioneer Hilary Koprowski, a Polish émigré who had recently turned the once-dying institute into an international crossroads of top biologists.

Hayflick had a PhD in medical microbiology but in the urbane Koprowski’s eyes, Hayflick was a mere supporting actor, hired to serve up lab-grown bottles of cells to the Wistar’s star-studded cast of scientists. But Hayflick, with his crew cut and working class Philadelphia roots, was not about to be overlooked. In the summer of 1962, he was keenly aware that silent monkey viruses had been found in the monkey kidney cells used to grown the famous Salk and Sabin polio vaccines.

One of these, SV-40, had recently been shown to cause lethal cancers in laboratory hamsters. Regulators were trying to downplay the news, but Hayflick was persuaded that normal, healthy cells from a single human foetus with healthy parents would provide a much-preferable alternative to monkey cells for making vaccines against viral diseases like polio, measles and rubella, also called German measles.

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Viruses can’t replicate outside cells, so vaccine-makers captured disease-causing viruses and grew them in lab-dish cells — weakening the viruses enough that they didn’t cause disease when injected, or killing them outright before injecting them. This way, they would cause an antibody-generating immune response, but not make vaccinees sick.

So on a drizzly June day in 1962, Hayflick took the lungs of Mrs. X’s foetus and used two scalpels to cut them into innumerable, matchhead-sized pieces. Several lab-dish steps later, Hayflick had created the WI-38 cell line: a replicating group of normal human cells that, unlike other human cells then grown in the lab, did not become cancerous. Hayflick froze some 800 tiny ampules of WI-38, each containing several million cells. For practical purposes, the supply he had created was almost infinite.

Hayflick next contacted the Swedish lab that had procured the lungs for him. There, a young, mannerly Swedish vaccine scientist with two small girls of her own was dispatched to obtain Mrs. X’s medical history. She ascertained, by going back to Mrs. X and her physician, that Mrs. X and her family were free of infectious diseases and cancer, making the WI-38 cells acceptable to companies and regulators.

Hayflick’s timing could not have been better. As Hayflick launched the WI-38 cells, an epidemic of rubella descended on the United Kingdom. Like Zika, but worse, rubella devastates foetuses in the womb, infecting virtually every fetal organ. In 1963 in Britain, and during the US epidemic that soon followed, tens of thousands of babies were born blind, deaf, with undersized heads and intellectual disabilities, and with malformed hearts – or with some combination of these disabilities, and others.

Six billion doses of vaccines have been made. The lives saved, thanks to these two aborted foetuses, are impossible to calculate

There was no vaccine, and the public pressure on scientists to create one soon became intense. At the Wistar Institute, a 32-year-old paediatrician named Stanley Plotkin had witnessed the results of the British epidemic as a visiting registrar at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Now back in Philadelphia, he set about making a vaccine, capturing the rubella virus from the aborted foetus of a woman who had had rubella early in her pregnancy, and growing it in Hayflick’s WI-38 cells. Why and how his safe, effective vaccine, now used nearly everywhere (as the “R” in the MMR vaccine), did not come to market in the United States until 1979, is a story of pure politics.

Politics, too, infected the fight over ownership of the WI-38 cells that ensued between Hayflick, Koprowski and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hayflick had been working on an NIH contract when he derived the cells. It stipulated that title passed to the government agency when the contract was terminated. That happened in 1968, when Hayflick took a better job at Stanford University in California.

He had been told by NIH that he could keep ten of the remaining 375 ampules of WI-38. Instead, he packed the entire stock in a liquid nitrogen refrigerator, strapped it into the backseat of the four-door family sedan alongside his children and decamped for California, via the Grand Canyon. Investigations and lawsuits ensued.

In the meantime, WI-38, and a British “copycat” cell line, MRC-5, developed (using Hayflick’s methods) in the cells of a foetus aborted in 1966, have been used – and are still – to make vaccines against measles, polio, hepatitis A, adenovirus, rabies, chickenpox, shingles and, of course, rubella. All told, more than six billion doses of vaccines have been made in the two cell lines. The lives saved, thanks to these two aborted foetuses, are impossible to calculate.

Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, Doubleday, £20, is out now