This nonfiction account of the spectacular and life-saving advances in vaccine development over the last fifty or so years is in some ways reminiscent of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. Until you see it set out before you, it is difficult to imagine or remember how much important history has passed in this field in just the last few decades.
The book begins and ends with Leonard Hayflick, a cell biologist credited with, among other things, discovery of the Hayflick Limit, an amorphous number that identifies how many times cells, especially human cells, can split and thus reproduce in a laboratory culture. In effect he established that non-cancerous cells cannot live and expand in culture indefinitely, which was in direct contradiction to the established wisdom of the day. He developed a human cell culture known as WI-38 that had the remarkable quality of being able to culture or reproduce in the lab multiple times without becoming cancerous or developing other anomalies. He promoted these cells vigorously for the purpose of researching cell aging, and, perhaps more importantly, for use in producing “clean” vaccines.
Hayflick was a controversial figure for several reasons. He was treated as hired help at the Wistar Institute where he worked culturing cells for the virus researchers, the supposed stars, a fact that he deeply resented. His discovery of cell death was not easily accepted by the scientific community, but more than that, it was his fateful, and questionable, decision to take the WI-38 cells he had developed with a government grant to his new position at Stanford University, and eventually to begin selling them through his own corporation. Some at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considered him a thief while others saw him as an underappreciated scientist of outstanding ability.
The book is not a biography of Hayflick, however, although he is the central figure. Other virus researchers, doctors, biologists and bureaucrats are featured at length. The process of cell culture and vaccine development is described in considerable detail in language a layman like me can understand. I was awestruck at how complex the process is. Really top-notch science is required – hands-on lab work especially – and some risky experiments and testing that raise ethical questions. Experiments of the day involved inoculating subjects with untested vaccines, including live ones that could give him the disease. Subjects were often orphans, prisoners, soldiers, babies, the mentally deficient, and others who had little or no ability to consent. Many or even most were unaware that they were even test subjects. The diseases involved included polio, rubella (German measles), rabies, and adenovirus. The WI-38 cells were derived from an aborted fetus. It is clear that the field is replete with controversial and ethically troubling issues.
The writing is clear and workmanlike, if not particularly elegant. To my taste there was too much time spent on the upbringing and background of the various figures in the book when it should have focused more on the science. The author also had an irritating tendency to repeat. Virtually every time a vaccine or person was mentioned it was followed by clause informing us for the umpteenth time who or what that was. I’m not an idiot. I can remember the person who was just the subject of a long chapter twenty pages ago and mentioned fifty times earlier in the book. It made the book overlong. It also focused too much on the intellectual property controversy over the ownership of the WI-38 cells and Hayflick’s alleged wrongdoing. He was, by all accounts, a star in the field of cell biology and a decent human being whose work led to the development of new or improved vaccines preventing thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths and other suffering, and to scientific advancements that brought Nobel prizes to others who built on his work. Still, all in all, it was a well-written book on an interesting subject.