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Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D.

monkeys were obtained from various sources around the world, and people began to realize that these monkey kidney cells contain unwanted viruses, several of which were in fact lethal to humans. One of them was called the B-virus, and that killed several workers on monkeys. Other viruses were found in the kidney cells themselves, and that contaminated many of the early vaccines. People sort of shrugged at the importance of this for a number of years–until the SV40 virus was discovered in the early 1960s, and that was a critical development.

I should say something parenthetically about the Marburg agent, which you may have read about in the past month. The Marburg virus is the one that’s just broken out–in one of the African countries–and it’s killed around two hundred people as of today. It’s a cousin of the ebola virus, and it’s a huge problem. It’s almost a hundred percent lethal, causing systemic hemorrhages, which is a very unpleasant way to die. I mention the Marburg agent because that was a virus that was another virus found in monkey kidneys used in Marburg, Germany for poliovaccine production in the early to mid-’70s.

Because those monkey kidneys were to be to be used for polio vaccine production this put a scare into everybody in this field around the world, and ended up with a conference at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in which my cells were then more seriously considered as a replacement for primary monkey kidney. But that’s skipping ahead at least around ten years. Let me go back to the beginning of the story and tell you what happened in the early 1960s–1961 and 1962.

There are two parts to this story. A woman named Bernice Eddy worked at the vaccine control authority at NIH, that is, the authority that approves vaccines for use by the public. She was working with baby hamsters, which are particularly susceptible to tumors, and she decided to inoculate monkey kidney cells that manufacturers were using for polio virus vaccine production into these baby hamsters. She observed that tumors were being formed in the cheek pouch where these cells were inoculated. This puzzled her greatly, and she went to her boss, a man by the name of Joe Smadel–a very famous virologist–who poo-pooed this observation, and essentially threw her out of his office. He didn’t want to hear of any problems with polio vaccines because the whole country was celebrating the Salk vaccine and the emerging Sabin vaccine.

Okay, let’s shift over to the second branch of this story and then I’ll marry the two. The second branch of the story emerged because these unwanted viruses were now better known, and people were becoming more worried about them. By now we knew that there were about twenty or twenty-five of them. People began to look at monkey kidneys from other species, other than the ones that were being used at the time, namely cynomolgus monkeys and rhesus monkeys.

Enter Maurice Hilleman. Maurice Hilleman, who worked with Joe Smadel at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research years before these events occurred, was by this time vice-president for vaccine development at Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania. Maurice Hilleman is known by people in this field as one of the world’s best and greatest virologists, and certainly the best vaccine maker in the world. He was a giant in this field. He died last week, and it was in most of the papers, but most people don’t know his name. He was fantastic. He was, by the way, a very good friend of mine.

So Hilleman mounted a program at Merck in West Point, Pennsylvania, which is not too far from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. It’s a suburb, and he employed a number of people who were friends of mine. So this was a fairly close-knit community. We all knew what each other was doing on a daily basis virtually. Hilleman and one his lieutenants, a man by the name of Ben Sweet, were working with other monkey species in effort to find cleaner monkeys.

They began to work with what’s called the African Green Monkey–Cercopithecus aethiops–and they added to the polio vaccine a specific antibody that prevented the polio virus from multiplying. They put that on Green Monkey kidney cells, expecting to find nothing because the antibody had inactivated the polio vaccine. But instead of finding nothing happening to these Green monkey kidney cells, they found the cells were behaving unusually, and that many of them were dying. They pursued this and found that they had discovered a new virus, which they called SV40. It was the fortieth in a series of the thirty-nine previous ones that had been discovered. They discovered that, although SV40 was commonly found in rhesus and cynomolgus kidney cells, it didn’t do any harm there, but when it was put into Green monkey kidney cells it harmed those cells, which was very unusual.

Okay, now let’s switch over to Bernice Eddy at NIH in Bethesda, who now knew what Hilleman and Sweet had discovered. To make this part of the story short, it was discovered that the cause of the tumors in these baby hamsters was not the kidney cells, but the SV40 virus. So here we had a virus that produced tumors in baby hamsters, that was in monkey kidneys, and indeed as was later found in the vaccines that were then being used. And it was alive.

Well, of course that created a lot of interest, to say the least, and worry. Then the coup de grace was discovered at the Wistar Institute and Harvard, simultaneously, where it was found that if you put SV40 on my cells–namely normal human cells in culture–the SV40 would convert those cells into a human cancer cells. Now, if you can imagine anything worse than a virus doing that in a vaccine, I’d like to know what it is. There is nothing worse than that. Well, that caused a furor and it’s really the basis for a book by Debbie Bookchin and Jim Schumacher called The Virus and the Vaccine (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

So, here I was in this climate, and by this time I had realized that my cells–which were derived from normal human fetuses–had some extraordinary properties. The cell strain that I worked on mostly was called WI-38, and I discovered that WI-38 cells had the widest human virus spectrum of any cell population then known. In fact, it not only grew all the human viruses that were known at the time, but others that were unknown. For example, I discovered a new common cold virus using those cells. So that was one major observation, and this was all reported in my original paper. The second and perhaps most critical point was that despite every effort that we could make–not only by myself but in other laboratories throughout the world (who by this time had received samples of my cells)–no one could find a hidden virus, or what we call an indigenous virus in these cells. That statement is true up to this day, forty-three years later.

So it was obvious to me that the solution to this very serious problem with monkey kidney cells–that were contaminated with the worst possible contaminants one could think of–was to substitute normal human fetal cells for those monkey kidney cells. Although that concept was embraced by Hilary Koprowski, my boss, and other people at the Wistar Institute–Stanley Plotkin in particular, who using my cells developed the rubella vaccine. Other people at the Wistar Institute developed the rabies vaccine using my cells. These vaccines are used worldwide to this day, and those people patented those vaccines without ever telling me, by the way. I do not appear on those patents. The institute realized thirty million dollars as a result of those patents, and I saw nothing, but those people saw some fraction of that money. I’m to this day unable to determine how much.

David: I interviewed Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for developing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which revolutionized the study of genetics. He never saw a penny for his development, yet others made a fortune off it.

Dr. Hayflick: Yeah, but that’s a completely different situation because he signed away–as every employee of that company did–his intellectual property rights when he was employed. I never did that. That didn’t exist at the time. The intellectual property rights to a self-reproducing system became a very important problem in the mid-1970s, when I brought suit against the NIH for stealing WI-38 from my laboratory when they claimed it as their own. It’s a long story that would take hours to tell. I don’t know whether you know about that lawsuit or not.

David: I read about it in Stephan Hall’s book Merchants of Immortality.

Dr. Hayflick: He just briefly mentioned it. It’s a compelling story and has been published in “A Novel Technique for Transforming the Theft of Mortal Human Cells into Praiseworthy Federal Policy.” (L. Hayflick, Experimental Gerontology, 1988, volume 33, pages 191-207.)

Anyhow, I’ll get back to answering your question. So it was apparent to me that normal human diploid cells like WI-38 should be used for vaccine production. In fact, Stanley Plotkin, Hilary Koprowski, and I published a paper called “Preparation of Poliovirus Vaccines in a Human Fetal Diploid Cell Strain” in the American Journal of Hygiene, 1962, volume 75, pages 240-258, in which we showed the safety and efficacy of a polio vaccine produced in one of my human diploid cells that was fed to several infants in Philadelphia, that later included my own children. So the stage was set for the replacement of monkey kidney cells, but the political, economic, and ego forces in existence at the time prevented this from happening for approximately a decade.

It peaked when the Marburg virus, that I mentioned earlier,

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