The story of Henrietta Lacks has gradually become well known. Adam Curtis made a documentary about her for the BBC in 1998 called The Way of All Flesh. Shortly afterwards, Rebecca Skloot began writing about the life of Lacks, culminating in her 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died of cervical cancer, but before she did cells from a tumour were used as the basis for an important cell line known as HeLa. Her story, indirectly, led to Meredith Wadman discovering the story of another important cell line known as WI-38. That story forms the core of her book The Vaccine Race, a book that is fascinating, well-written, and important.
Cell lines are extremely important to modern research and are particularly important in the development of modern vaccines. After Edward Jenner began vaccinating people for smallpox by using the cowpox virus in the late 18th century, vaccines were developed using animal cells for more than a hundred and fifty years. Rhesus monkey cells were used to prepare early polio vaccines, causing millions of children to be exposed to a virus that was known to cause cancer.
A better way to produce vaccines relied heavily on the work of Philadelphia doctor Leonard Hayflick. Hayflick made a critical realization that normal human cells will not divide indefinitely, as Lacks’ malignant cells would, but would divide between 40 and 60 times when cultured from a fetus before dying. Today this is known as “Hayflick’s Limit” and the reason for the limit is that the protective endings of cells (called telomeres) become a little shorter with each replication. Before Hayflick’s discovery, most scientists believed that the death of cells in cultures was caused by their own shortcomings in properly culturing the cells.
Hayflick also began using cells cultured from aborted fetuses to produce the key cell line of WI-38. Although the cells would not divide forever, they could be frozen to prolong their life. Free from the potential viruses found in animals, WI-38 allowed for the creation of the rubella vaccine in the late 1960s. Like the Zika virus, Rubella is mildly harmful to most people but responsible for serious birth defects when pregnant women are infected. Today, WI-38 cells are used in the production of vaccines such as the MMR vaccine.
Wadman’s book delves deeply into legal ethics as well. It describes how the rubella vaccine was originally tested at an orphanage without the consent of the people exposed to the virus as well as the legal battle over who owned the rights to WI-38.
Vaccines are one of the great accomplishments of the human mind. Their current politicization is unfortunate and dangerous. Wadman’s book is a great reminder that science is both valuable and imperfect, but rather than arguing about settled matters points the way to an appropriate discussion concerning how to prepare what we know works in a responsible way as well as illuminating the reality that medicine can advance while simultaneously being ethical. The book is written well enough that it can be hard to believe that it is Wadman’s first, but she is an experienced writer from publications such as Science and clearly knows how to make scientific and medical subjects extremely fascinating. The Vaccine Race scores high on practically every metric that matters for a non-fiction book: it’s interesting, topical, accurate, and enlightening.
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