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History of vaccines a controversial reminder of enormous advances in medical science

The Vaccine Race tackles a subject that concerns literally every human: the use of vaccines to fight deadly viral diseases.

Meredith Wadman, a native of Vancouver, is a 20-year veteran science journalist who has published regularly in the key scientific magazines Science and Nature, as well as publications such as Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Wadman is, therefore, well-practiced in the art of translating scientific vocabulary into plain English; some readers may still, however, find themselves checking Wikipedia for background.

The Vaccine Race is about the development of vaccines in the last six decades that have saved millions of lives, defeating polio, rubella (or German measles) and rabies, among other deadly viruses. Wadman describes the competition between the creators and champions of different methods of producing vaccines, the government officials who have blocked and delayed some vaccines (while promoting others) and the winners and losers in terms of financial rewards and credit.

One method of making an antiviral vaccine is to grow the virus being targeted on a primary cell taken from the tissue variety of sources such as chicken embryos, or monkey livers, or aborted human fetuses. This step is necessary because viruses cannot grow except as a parasite on living cells.

A part of the growing virus, an antigen that will trigger the body’s immune system to fight the disease, is isolated and used to manufacture the vaccine.

A central character in Wadman’s story of vaccine development is Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a cell biologist at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology on the University of Pennsylvania campus, who played a central role in creating vaccines using this method. In the early 1960s Hayflick began creating WI cells, named after the Wistar Institute.

Hayflick used tissue from a single aborted fetus shipped to him from Sweden as the original source. He separated the cells and then put them through a process in which they divided and re-divided through many generations, creating a store of millions of cells that were frozen and made available to scientists for research and vaccine production over many years.

One of the controversies described by Wadman was over the question of whether it was preferable to manufacture vaccines using fetal cells like Hayflick’s or cells from monkeys. By the 1970s it was established that monkey tissue could contain "hidden viruses" that might infect those being immunized with other diseases.

Wadman describes research methods common in the 1950s and ’60s which are now much more strictly controlled. Children in orphanages, people in institutions for the mentally challenged and prisoners were all used to test vaccines for side effects, without much in the way of formal permission.

And, of course, the mother of the aborted fetus that supplied the original cells for the millions that Hayflick provided for research was never asked for permission.

The Vaccine Race is the fascinating and rather inspiring story of the conquest of some of the world’s deadliest diseases. There was polio, the killer of millions of children; rubella, which until the 1960s could result in terrible birth defects when contracted by pregnant mothers; and rabies, a fatal disease worldwide, especially in rural areas.

The book is an important reminder of the enormous advances in the discovery of viral diseases and the methods to control them that have been made in the last 60 years.

Jim Blanchard is a local historian.

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