Book Review: The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Cost of Defeating Disease

by Meredith Wadman

(Viking, 448 pages plus 16 page photo insert, $30, February 7, 2017)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail. It originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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The names capture our attention and raise visceral fears. Today it is Zika and Ebola. In the recent past it was measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and of course, polio.

The roll of human viral diseases goes on, as does the battle to cure or prevent them. That battle, notes science journalist Meredith Wadman in her new book The Vaccine Race, begins with science but quickly expands to include business, religion, and–inevitably–politics.

It is a story of human tragedy and greatness, of curiosity and ambition, of turf battles and ethical lapses, and of what we would call today “fake news” and “alternative facts” about the use of cells from an aborted fetus.

At the center of the story, Wadman places Leonard Hayflick, who in 1962 was a thirty-four year old junior scientist at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. “His boss, the famous polio-vaccine pioneer Hilary Koprowski,” writes Wadman, “saw him as a mere technician, hired to serve up bottles of lab-grown cells to the institute’s impressive cadre of biologists.”

The ambitious but underestimated Hayflick was undeterred. The previous year, he had published a research paper that challenged “a major piece of scientific dogma: the belief that cells grown in a lab bottle, if properly nurtured, would multiply indefinitely.” That claim was widely criticized, but he was characteristically confident that he was correct.

It would take years of research to prove him right. His work at Wistar and later at Stanford University would have major implications for both the production of vaccines and the understanding of human aging.

But that day, Hayflick was eager to begin work with newly delivered cells. Since viruses cannot reproduce on their own and a vaccine contains either killed or seriously weakened live virus, Hayflick needed young, living cells that did not harbor other viruses. His delivery fit his criteria, having come from the lungs of a second-trimester fetus from a fit and healthy Swedish woman, who chose abortion because she could not handle any more children.

At the same time, thirty-year-old Stanley Plotkin, who had formerly worked at Wistar and would soon return, had begun a one-year pediatric residency in London. There he saw the devastating birth defects caused by rubella early in pregnancy. He became determined to develop a vaccine, and he knew Koprowski was eager to make up for not quite beating Albert Sabin in the race to develop a live-virus polio vaccine.

Developing a rubella vaccine is at the center of The Vaccine Race, but the story is much more complex. It involves not only the National Institutes of Health, but also institutes and pharmaceutical firms around the world. To understand the events, Wadman must describe various cell cultures, especially one that became known as WI38, created by Hayflick from those fetal lungs.

Today WI38 is the basis of numerous vaccines, but for a time it languished in Hayflick’s lab. When Hayflick, feeling unappreciated and uncertain about the future of his creation, left Wistar for Stanford in 1968, he took every ampule of WI38 with him in his car, preserved in a tank of liquid nitrogen.

In the years that followed, Hayflick supplied WI38 to laboratories and pharmaceutical firms, and eventually accumulated a significant sum of money. His actions led to years of litigation over ownership of the cells, but Wadman’s narrative suggests that they may have been essential to preserve the world’s supply of a critical cell line that is now used in the safest and most effective vaccines for the vaccines for the viruses noted above, as well as rabies, hepatitis A, and more.

In many ways, Hayflick was ahead of his time, an accidental entrepreneur of a cell line before cell lines could be patented and university scientists could share in the rewards. Then in 1976, controversy erupted after an article in the journal Science described “Hayflick’s Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Human Cell Line.” Disputes with the Stanford’s leadership led him to resign his position there.

He maintained a small amount of WI38 until 2006, buying liquid nitrogen as needed and supplying ampules to other researchers. Today, at age 88, Hayflick is a much-honored elder statesman. But his reputation will always be marked by his perhaps intemperate, perhaps necessary choice to take his cell line on a cross-country trip.

Which is it? Wadman seems to lean to the latter, but a reader could easily judge it to be the former and still appreciate the drama of The Vaccine Race.

Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers.