Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour

Today, it’s mine and Paul’s (Halfman, Halfbook) turn on the Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour. Each day two bloggers are covering one of the books on the shortlist for this prize which will be announced on Monday. One will review, the other will host an extract, so head over to Paul’s blog (Halfman, Halfbook) to read a little from this fascinating book, and carry on here for my review…


The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

I’ve long had a layperson’s interest in vaccines. I’ve never been afraid of getting a jab, knowing that the vaccine will offer protection from illness at some level.  Not even the excruciating arm pain I got after a typhoid jab would put me off getting the vaccinations needed to travel if required.  But in particular, when my daughter was small, it was the height of the vaccine scare about the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccination given to babies and toddlers.  I found myself trying to persuade several women at mother and baby playgroups that their fears were unfounded; that it didn’t cause autism, that thiomersal (an organomercury preservative) wasn’t used in this vaccine in the UK, that any transient side-effects from the MMR vaccine was far outweighed by its benefit. I’ll never know whether my advocacy worked. They’ve now added Chicken Pox (varicella) to make it MMRV and I’ve read that it’s safer than ever.

However, I am very glad that the vaccines I received as a child in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s were safer, probably as a result of the pioneering (and controversial) work carried out by one American microbiologist – Leonard Hayflick. The Vaccine Race is essentially Hayflick’s story.

If you are expecting a popular science book about epidemiology, about diseases and how they’ve been contained and nearly eradicated (as in the case of Polio), you’d do well to observe the subtitle: ‘How Scientists Used Human Cells to Combat Killer Viruses.” This book is more about the vehicle for producing the vaccines than the diseases these weakened virus strains were grown to combat, This is because viruses are psychopaths!

“Their [The virus’s] sole purpose is to invade living cells so they can reproduce.”

In so doing, they destroy the host cells, and die out when there are no hosts left. There was a real problem keeping viruses alive in the laboratory.  Initial polio vaccines were being manufactured using the kidneys of Green monkeys, but this resulted in needing huge numbers of monkeys who could not be certified as free of disease – indeed there were some horrific side-effects occasionally. Hayflick’s quantum leap was to develop the first clean human cell line with staying power – the cells could last for up to fifty generations – doubling each time, so almost indefinite quantities could be cultivated.

Hayflick’s 1962 cell line, which became known as WI-38, came from the lungs of the aborted foetus of a healthy Swedish woman from a family with a good health history, free from cancer and other major disease. She, referred to as ‘Mrs X’,  was never asked to give her consent, and some will revolt at cells from aborted foetuses being used for this, but thanks to the vaccine made with these cells, rubella has been virtually wiped out.

Rubella is different from other agents that cause birth defects, in that it doesn’t usually affect the carving out and shaping of organs and other structures. […] Instead the virus homes in on newly formed structures: the long, thin fibers of the lens of the eye; the delicate inner ear, the seat of hearing; the liming of the heart; the small blood vessels that feed what should be a growing brain with oxygen and nutrients.

If the provenance of the cell line is an ethical nightmare to us today, the methods of testing vaccines back then were worse. It was typical for testing to be carried out on orphans and disabled children, prisoners and so on with some terrible consequences.

Wadman’s text explains a lot of the basic science involved in the cell propagation experiments carried out by Hayflick and his colleagues. Indeed Hayflick’s discovery that cells had a reproductive limit – which became known as the ‘Hayflick Limit’ would presage, without knowing why it happened, the 2009 Nobel-prize winning work on telomeres, the protective end caps to our chromosomes’ DNA which wear away.  The explanations are dense, and by the incremental nature of Hayflick’s research, sometimes repetitive, but do give an essential understanding for those who engage with the science.

Running alongside the science are two more parallel threads. Big pharma, even then, was an extremely competitive field, and nowhere more so than in the field of vaccines, and they were reluctant to have to develop new vaccines using Hayflick’s cell line when they had their own reasonably effective, so they thought, monkey derived ones. Getting his product to market was extremely difficult. Secondly came the big question of who owned WI-38?  When Hayflick decamped cross-country in the mid-1970s from the Wistar Institute in Pennsylvania where he developed WI-38, to Stanford University to take a post there, he took the cells with him, frozen in big portable nitrogen Dewars.  This was expressly against the agreement that had been hashed out between the National Institute for Health and the Wistar, in which he was only given a handful of phials for his own continuing research. Sadly, the resulting lawsuits ended in Hayflick being sidelined and his career never recovered.  However, the rubella vaccine developed by his colleagues using WI-38, undoubtedly did protect millions of lives.

Wadman has certainly done her research, and bringing these disparate strands together into a coherent whole is no mean achievement. At 480 pages (plus 100 more of notes, bibliography and indexes which I only flicked through), this book does require some dedication to read. The science, although shocking in its ethical aspects, can be quite dry, but perhaps this level of detail is needed to ensure all those involved are included appropriately – many are also pictured in the photo section. The thrillerish feel to big pharma’s politics, and Hayflick’s continual battles for recognition and against anyone who wanted to take his cells away from him made for fascinating reading and added the much-needed human aspect.


Source: Own copy

Meredith Wadman, The Vaccine Race (Doubleday, 2017) Black Swan paperback, 608 pages, including notes etc.

Buy at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

8 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour

  1. I suspect I won’t be reading this but I am a fan of vaccines,although not the actual process! The MMR scandal was appallingly handled by the media. Every playground needed a sensible, scientifically educated, articulate Annabel to counter their hysteria.

  2. A great review. I think I liked this more than anyone else on the shadow panel, but I agree that there was too much packed in and that it needed to focus on one or two of the numerous threads. Good work re advocating MMR!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Wherever I went as mother and baby at the time, there were mothers saying that they might not bother with it, or the posh ones saying they’d consider getting the separate injections. I hate to think how many children there are out there who didn’t get their jabs.

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