March 2, 2024

The controversial history of WI-38

The bizarre story of a strain of cells derived from an aborted foetus.

For years, opponents of abortion have been dismissed as loopy scaremongerers for claiming that some essential vaccines have been derived from the cells of an aborted foetus. Now the leading journal Nature has acknowledged their concerns and explained what happened.

In the wake of the scandal over HeLa cells (see accompanying story) Nature’s editorial reminds readers of the genesis of so-called WI-38 cells. These “arguably had an even bigger impact on science and medicine than the HeLa line. Whereas HeLa cells are cancerous, WI-38 cells are healthy and normal. They have been widely used for the production of virus vaccines given to many people worldwide — against rubella, for instance — and in research as a prototypical normal human cell.” “These cells from one fetus have no doubt saved the lives of millions of people,” one scientist told Nature.

The origin of the cells is well documented. In 1962 a Swedish woman had a legal abortion at 4 months because she did not want another child. The lungs of the foetus were removed and sent to Philadelphia. There, at the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology they were processed and cultured by Leonard Hayflick. Subsequently they were used to create vaccines for rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles.

The development of WI-38 is full of controversy. Other strains of cells, from WI-1 to WI-25, were developed using cells from aborted foetuses in Philadelphia (it was technically illegal at the time, except for medical emergencies). Through Hayflick’s work on these cells, he made some very important discoveries about cell ageing.

After he successfully multiplied the WI-38 cells, he created more than 800 batches and distributed them freely around the world to drug companies and researchers. 

Then he fell out with Wistar authorities because he though that his contribution was being ignored. Without permission, he took all the remaining batches to California where he had a new job at Stanford. This led to years of legal battles and bitterness. 

As for the abortion connection, this is beyond dispute. Nature points out that, like as in the Henrietta Lacks case, no informed consent was given by the Swedish mother. Her identity is known but she refuses to talk about the case. The doctors involved are all dead.

The Vatican studied the issue for a couple of years and gave its verdict in 2005:

“there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population — especially with regard to pregnant women… there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems.”

The drug companies and institutions which have used WI-38 deny that there are serious ethical concerns either with the use of cells from aborted foetuses or with the lack of consent. “At the time [the fetus] was obtained there was no issue in using discarded material,” says Stanley Plotkin, a scientist who used WI-38 to develop a rubella vaccine. “Retrospective ethics is easy but presumptuous.”

Michael Cook
Creative commons
drug development