In November, Philadelphia presented the John Scott Award to three innovators for their work in science. Taunya English profiled one of the winners.
Leonard Hayflick is an exacting man. Accuracy—and setting the record straight–matter to him.
When the popular book about the HeLa cell line, called “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was published, Hayflick says he reached out to the author to talk about a series of things he thought the author got wrong.
That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s also by turns charming and boastful.
In November, as the 86-year-old walked to the podium at the John Scott award ceremony, he pulled out his digital camera and turned it on the audience to capture the moment.
“My wife, who unfortunately can’t be here, told me that if I didn’t take pictures, she wouldn’t allow me to come home,” he said to loud laughs.
“Ok, smile. Good. Now this side. Ready? Smile.”
During his acceptance speech Hayflick took jabs at his former employer, at the federal government, and kept a straight face as he cast himself as an outlaw scientist—kind of like the bank robber Slick Willie Sutton.
“When asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied because that’s where the money is,” Hayflick said. “So, I used overhead funds illegally because that’s where the scientific freedom is.”
Hayflick’s bandit-approach to science began at one of Philadelphia’s leading research centers, the Wistar Institute. In the early 1960s, he developed a strain of cells called WI-38. It was a huge success at a time when getting cells to reliably multiply in the lab was more of an art than a science.
“Without WI-38, the Rubella vaccine, for example, would never have been successful because by growing it in normal human cells, it acquired characteristics that made it desirable for vaccine production,” Hayflick said.
WI-38 was “enabling technology,” Hayflick said. He and lab partner Paul Moorhead cultivated “clean” human cells that became a platform for vaccine engineering. The cells were used to produce vaccines against German measles, chicken pox, rabies, and Hepatitis A among others.
Hayflick is proud of that but seems bitter about what has happened since.
“Morehead and I have not received a penny, not even acknowledgement from the Wistar Institute in respect to our role in giving value to the cells from which they profit in the millions,” Hayflick said.
The Wistar Institute declined to talk about Hayflick’s dispute.
‘He was the one who developed the cells’
Vaccine researcher Stanley Plotkin is also a former Wistar scientist. He says he worked down the hall from Hayflick in the 60s. Asked about Hayflick and what it was like to work with him, he said: “I think I’d prefer not to go into that.”
But years ago, Plotkin says he was very willing to speak up for Hayflick’s work when scientific elites were skeptical that WI-38 could be used to engineer vaccines.
“He was the one who developed the cells, others including myself, used the cells to develop vaccines,” Plotkin said.
At a science meeting, Plotkin says the esteemed polio-vaccine researcher Albert Sabin was unsure.
“Sabin made some comments about the dangers of diploid cells, [WI-38],” Plotkin said. “I got up in the impudence of youth and told him he was full of baloney.”
“It’s a general principle that the more you passage a virus–artificially—that is to say outside of the body–in cell culture–it loses it’s ability to cause symptoms in the person,” Plotkin said. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but it’s a classic way of weakening virus.”
The weakened virus is later used in vaccines. It remains potent enough to cause the body to rally its defenses, but it’s not strong enough to causes disease.
“These vaccines by now have saved millions of lives, they have been used in billions of children, so that in my mind that is where the true value of this cell line is,” said Hildegund Ertl, director of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center.
Ertl says when scientists were using monkey cells or cowhide to make vaccines; Hayflick’s WI-38 cells offered a safer alternative.
“If you grow something on the skin of a cow, it’s going to come out pretty dirty, and then people have side effects, so we were starting to realize that giving people very dirty vaccines was asking for trouble,” she said.
Continuing Hayflick’s legacy
That technique is still used, but vaccine technology has moved on in some ways. Today scientists can genetically modify a virus to prevent it from replicating.
Wistar still keeps a few vials of WI-38 in the deep freeze. The tiny plastic container filled with a pinkish-orange liquid inside isn’t much to see.
But you can see part of Hayflick’s legacy as research technicians keep cells multiplying and happy. Today, cell culturing is well understood, and Leonard Hayflick helped advance that science.
Using predecessor strains to WI-38 he proved that normal cells have a finite lifespan. Before the “Hayflick limit” was documented, scientists accepted that cultured cells were immortal.
“My discovery was ridiculed, marginalized, unaccepted for at least 10 years,” Hayflick said.
Who owns the cells?
Leonard Hayflick says he decided to leave Wistar in part because he learned that the institute was going to profit from WI-38 through a patent on its own vaccine work.
“I took the ampules with me, drove in my car in a liquid nitrogen tank to California to await a decision,” he said.
He moved on to Stanford University, but the dispute over who owned the cells followed him. The federal government said it owned WI-38 and sent an accountant to inventory Hayflick’s laboratory.
“He came to the conclusion that I had stolen government property,” Hayflick said. “And assumed I was a thief.”
Hayflick says: the government got it wrong.
The National Institutes of Health helped pay overhead for all the labs at Wistar, but Hayflick says the WI-38 science happened without a direct government grant. He says he used cast off materials from other work he was doing at the institute.
Hayflick argues that he, Paul Moorhead and the family of the fetus from which the original WI-38 cell tissue was harvested are the stakeholders who most deserved to profit from WI-38.
Hayflick says Wistar “possibly” had a claim and “remotely the feds may have had a tiny share.”
Hayflick shared the cells with vaccine makers around the world. But in the 60s, there was no government mechanism to protect his intellectual property rights and patent the living cells.
“If you own the ampules, do you own the cells that reproduce from the ampules forever and ever?” Hayflick said.
That question has not been resolved to this day. But after suing the government, and years of back and forth, eventually Hayflick settled the case.
A half-century later, he asks: “Why are commercial companies allowed to profit from using these cells when the real stakeholders are forbidden.”
An effort ‘more important than my laboratory work’
Time moved on, regulations, laws and attitudes changed. The government now encourages universities and scientists to collaborate with businesses to commercialize inventions supported by federal funds.
“The work that these men did is pretty old–done back in the 60s, we recognize that their achievements haven’t been given the level of recognition that they deserved,” said Harvey Rubin, a member of the John Scott Award selection committee.
“I nominated him for this award 10 years ago, the committee always found a reason to give it to somebody else,” said Eugene Garfield, founding editor of The Scientist.
“He’s a very determined guy, persistent. Some might say a noodge,” Garfield said.
Hayflick’s work has a complicated reputation and sometimes that has overshadowed its importance. In addition to Hayflick’s government dispute, WI-38 cells are often dubbed controversial because they were harvested from an aborted fetus. That presents moral concerns for some people, and the Vatican even explored the issue for its faithful who worried about using the vaccines that were later prepared from the cells.
Len Hayflick says he’s happy to be known as the person who challenged the government’s claim on WI-38. He also helped transform attitudes about whether scientists should profit from innovations supported by taxpayer money.
“That work that I did to change people’s minds was far more important than my laboratory work,” Hayflick said.
Leonard Hayflick shared the 2014 John Scott Award with fellow Wistar Institute alum Paul Moorhead. Researcher Susan Band Horwitz was also honored for work that lead to a new cancer treatment.
Disclosure: Wistar Institute is an underwriter of WHYY.