Not much is known about the women who unwittingly donated embryonic cells to science some 50 years ago, until now that is. Meredith Wadman, author of The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease, which came out on Feb. 7, found and interviewed the Swedish woman who unknowingly donated her fetus to science in what would become known as the WI-38 cell line, an ingredient in many common pediatric vaccines. For example, Merck brought in $1.64 billion last year on its MMR and chicken pox vaccines, and the company’s shingles vaccine, initially developed in the WI-38 cells, brought in another $685 million.
Writing for Slate Magazine, the author notes: “In my new book, The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease, I call her Mrs. X. In 1962, Mrs. X, a mother of several young children, was married to an immature alcoholic who was often out of town for his blue-collar job—and who wasn’t much help when he was around. She couldn’t face another baby.
In Sweden, where Mrs. X lived, abortion was legal. But most doctors refused to offer the procedure. By the time she found a sympathetic, female gynecologist, Mrs. X was four months pregnant.
After the abortion, her 8-inch-long, female fetus was taken without her knowledge and its lungs dissected at the famous Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The tiny purplish organs were packed on ice and flown to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, where a biologist named Leonard Hayflick cut them into innumerable pieces the size of match heads. Several lab-flask steps later, Hayflick had created the WI-38 cell line: a replicating group of normal human cells that, unlike other human cells then grown in the lab, did not become cancerous. That made them perfect vehicles for making vaccines against viruses like measles, rabies, and rubella. (Viruses can’t replicate outside cells, so vaccine-makers captured disease-causing viruses and grew them in lab-bottle cells—weakening the viruses enough that they didn’t cause disease when injected, or killing them outright before injecting them. This way, they would cause an antibody-generating immune response but not make vaccinees sick.)”
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