In the late 1960s the scientist behind the worlds most successful antiviral vaccines went into battle against his employer and the US government for custody of the cells that he called his children
On 9 October 1964, a baby girl was born at Philadelphia general hospital. She arrived early, when her mother was about 32 weeks pregnant. The baby weighed 3.2lb and was noted to be blue, floppy and not breathing. The only sign of life was her slow heartbeat. Nonetheless, she clung on, and her 17-year-old mother named her.
One month later, the baby was still in the hospital, and a doctor listening with a stethoscope heard a harsh heart murmur. A chest X-ray showed that she had a massively enlarged heart because a hole in the organ was preventing it from pumping blood efficiently. It also emerged that the baby had cataracts blinding both eyes. Later, other signs indicated that she was profoundly deaf.
The baby also suffered from recurring respiratory infections and had trouble gaining weight. A psychologist who assessed her in July 1965 judged the nine-month-old to be the size of a two- or three-month-old infant and at about that stage of development, too. She needed heart surgery if she was going to survive. Just before her first birthday, surgeons made an incision in her chest wall and repaired her heart. After the operation, she remained in hospital. The chronic respiratory infections continued. The baby was 16 months old and weighed just 11lb when she died of pneumonia on 18 February 1966.
The young mother had told the doctors that when she was one month pregnant, she had contracted German measles, also known as rubella.
The early 1960s marked a coming of age for the study of viruses such as the one that causes rubella tiny infectious agents that invade cells and hijack their machinery in order to reproduce themselves. Biologists, with new tools in hand, were racing to capture viruses in throat swabs or urine or even snippets of organs from infected people and to grow them in lab dishes. Isolating a virus in the lab made it possible to make a vaccine against it. And making antiviral vaccines promised huge inroads against common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella, along with less common killers including hepatitis. The principle of vaccination is simple: if a person is injected with, or swallows, a tiny amount of a virus either a killed virus or a weakened live virus that person will develop antibodies against the virus. Then, if he or she is exposed in the future to the naturally occurring, disease-causing form of the virus, those antibodies will attack the invader and prevent it from causing disease.
But if the concept is simple, making effective vaccines is anything but. In the early 1960s, that reality was all too evident. In 1942, as many as 330,000 US servicemen were exposed to the hepatitis B virus in a yellow fever vaccine that was contaminated with blood plasma from infected donors (the plasma was used to stabilise the vaccine). Around 50,000 of the vaccinated servicemen contracted the liver disease and up to 150 died.
In 1955, a California-based company named Cutter Laboratories made a polio vaccine with the live, disease-causing virus in it. As a result, 192 people were paralysed many of them children and 10 died. Every senior US government employee involved in the Cutter incident lost his or her job, right up to the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the secretary for health, education and welfare.
Then, in the summer of 1961, Americans learned that cells used to manufacture the widely used Salk polio vaccine, harvested from monkey kidneys, harboured a virus named SV40. Tens of millions of American children had already received contaminated injections, and while the jury was still out on the tainted vaccines long-term health consequences, the risks were of great concern to regulators in the US and further afield.
It was against this backdrop that, on a drizzly June morning in 1962, a 34-year-old scientist named Leonard Hayflick went to work in his lab at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology an elegant 1890s brownstone tucked in the heart of the University of Pennsylvanias campus.
A serious, slight man with close-cropped dark hair, Hayflick was a product of working-class Philadelphia and hungry to make his name. He was in love with biology and had come to believe that he was extremely smart a fact that was far from appreciated. Hayflicks boss, the polio-vaccine pioneer Hilary Koprowski, saw him as a mere technician, hired to serve up bottles of lab-grown cells to the institutes scientists.
The ambitious Hayflick was undeterred. That day, he planned to launch a group of human cells that would revolutionise vaccine-making. He was convinced that, compared with monkey cells, which were often laden with viruses, human cells would serve as cleaner, safer vehicles for producing antiviral vaccines.
Several days earlier, a woman living near Stockholm had had an abortion. The eight-inch-long female foetus was wrapped in a sterile green cloth and delivered to a yellow brick outbuilding on the grounds of the National Biological Laboratory in north-west Stockholm. The lungs were removed, packed in ice and flown to the Wistar Institute.