"A real jewel of science history...brims with suspense and now-forgotten catastrophe and intrigue...Wadman’s smooth prose calmly spins a surpassingly complicated story into a real tour de force."—The New York Times
“Riveting . . . [The Vaccine Race] invites comparison with Rebecca Skloot's 2007 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”—Nature
The epic and controversial story of a major breakthrough in cell biology that led to the conquest of rubella and other devastating diseases.
Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from Sweden, produced safe, clean cells that allowed the creation of vaccines against rubella and other common childhood diseases. Two years later, in the midst of a devastating German measles epidemic, his colleague developed the vaccine that would one day wipe out homegrown rubella. The rubella vaccine and others made with those fetal cells have protected more than 150 million people in the United States, the vast majority of them preschoolers. The new cells and the method of making them also led to vaccines that have protected billions of people around the world from polio, rabies, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A, shingles and adenovirus.
Meredith Wadman’s masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who “owns” research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.
With another frightening virus--measles--on the rise today, no medical story could have more human drama, impact, or urgency than The Vaccine Race.
Wadman, staff writer for Science, depicts the cutthroat competition, ugly politics, brilliant science, and questionable ethics that underscored the research and development, during the 1960s and '70s, of vaccines that have protected many millions of Americans from rubella, polio, rabies, and other diseases. She provides an excellent introductory primer on cell biology to complement colorful sketches of the personalities of the pioneering biologists who produced the first live vaccines while challenging scientific tenets and medical ethics. The book is not for the squeamish. Wadman details the surgical and laboratory processes scientists used to develop vaccines, and describes the testing of vaccine prototypes on both children and adults done mostly without their consent, in orphanages, asylums, schools, and prisons. She also documents the beginnings of the biotechnology industry in the 1980s and the concomitant rise and fall of Leonard Hayflick, who created the crucial WI-38 cell strain and entered into multi-million dollar business agreements before coming under investigation by the National Institutes of Health and getting embroiled in a much-publicized court battle with the U.S. government over ownership of the valuable cells. This is an exemplary piece of medical journalism, and Wadman makes strikingly clear the human costs of medical developments as well as the roles of politics and economics.