Around 60 years ago it was still possible for pregnant mothers exposed to German Measles or rubella, to have children that were born with crippling birth defects. No one really knew how the virus affected the unborn child, nor did they know the best way to fight against this disease. It was understood how you could make a vaccine to combat the virus that caused this illness and others like chicken pox, rabies, and polio, but early attempts with animal cell-based vaccines caused as many problems as the illness they were trying to cure.
In 1962, a young biologist, Leonard Hayflick, in Philadelphia extracted cells from an aborted foetus that managed to turn the tide. These clean cells allowed scientist to create vaccines that were safe for almost everyone to use, and it carried the bland description of WI-38. This tiny collection of cells would be expanded time after time to be used to protect over 150 million children in America. Some of the cells he extracted and the methods he developed to get safe vaccines have saved billions of lives around the world.
But it almost didn’t happen. Given the source of the cells, there were countless political hurdles to overcome as well as complaints from pro-life groups who were incandescent with rage about it, but the scientist persevered and the vaccines got made and sent out in the world. Wadman has pieced together this story of how the cells were created, how the testing that was done on the uninformed and how that couldn’t happen these days. The distribution of these medicines helped create some of the worlds largest companies as the profits poured in. Whilst getting the detail right is important, the narrative that is so crucial in these books got a little lost in amongst all the technical explanations at times. It is a very important story that Wadman is telling though, especially given that fact that we may well be on the dawn of a new era in medicine with the rise of immunity against antibiotics. The one flaw though is that the book is very American centric with little UK and European interest, which is a shame as I feel that this would have a broader audience otherwise.