The subject-matter of Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race: how scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses seems to have taken a number of readers (including me) by surprise. Partly – at least in my case – this is due to not reading the sub-title and the book blurb properly. But it’s also because The Vaccine Race is about lots of things, all at once, so it’s difficult to summarise in a few sentences. One big story that Wadman is telling is about the life and career of Leonard Hayflick, best known today for discovering the ‘Hayflick limit’, or the fact that cells in a petri dish will only divide a fixed number of times before they cease to divide at all, and then die. While this may not sound especially exciting to non-scientists, Wadman emphasises both how revolutionary this was when Hayflick first proposed the idea in 1961, and how the discovery ‘opened the door to the study of cellular ageing.‘
Later, scientists such as Alexey Olovnikov would build on Hayflick’s work by proposing that the Hayflick limit was due to shortening telomeres on the ends of cell chromosomes. When cell DNA is replicated by DNA polymerase (the protein that copies DNA sequences when cells are dividing), DNA polymerase is unable to copy bits of DNA on the very ends of the chromosomes, and so the telomeres shorten each time. Olovinkov proposed that it’s these shortened telomeres that lead to cell ageing (although scientists think today that it’s much more complicated than that). This could be a book in itself – but actually everything I’ve just said is contained in a couple of short chapters of The Vaccine Race.
One of the main subjects of the book – although again, not its only concern – is Hayflick’s other key discovery, the development of the WI-38 cell line. In short, Hayflick grew cells from the lungs of an aborted human foetus to create healthy diploid cells (cells with two sets of chromosomes, like all human cells except egg and sperm cells) that could be infected with viruses. These cells could then be developed into ‘clean’ vaccines, addressing concerns about vaccines currently on the market, such as one rubella vaccine that was grown in green monkey cells even after researchers caught the Marburg virus from these monkeys. Wadman details how polio, rubella, adenovirus and rabies vaccines, among others, were developed from Hayflick’s WI-38 cells, and how, after initial resistance from the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US, they came to be in great demand.
But alongside its account of the development of scientific knowledge, The Vaccine Race also touches on the history of biology as a discipline in the US during the period covered by the book (roughly 1940 to 1980, although it occasionally stretches back further or jumps forward.) Biographical sketches of the main actors, most notably Hayflick and his one-time colleague, Stanley Plotkin, play a significant role. Wadman also talks very briefly about how biological research was understood in the US at the beginning of this period, and how that changed. In short, she suggests, biology shifted from a form of public service to something that it was acceptable to make money out of. In 1980, two key events marked this metamorphosis: the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case, which allowed living things to be patented in the US for the first time, and the Bayh-Dole Act, which stopped ownership of inventions that had been developed through federal research funding passing automatically to the federal government. (One of my favourite scenes in the book was when Hayflick drove cross-country to a new job carrying a portable nitrogen freezer full of WI-38 cells, defying the rule that the government had automatic ownership of his work.) As a historian, I couldn’t help wondering (again) if it was all a bit more complicated than that; but Wadman doesn’t have the space to delve any deeper.
I enjoyed reading The Vaccine Race. Wadman writes clearly and compellingly, and given how much material she’s handling, managing to structure the book sensibly is a feat in itself. But I felt that The Vaccine Race was often not one thing or the other. Is it a history of biology in post-war America or a layman’s account of how vaccines are developed? Is it about cell ageing, immunology or epidemiology? I liked hearing about all these subjects, but I wondered if a tighter focus might have made the book more memorable, although it’s still very much worth a look.