Crucial and yet Controversial: WI-38 Cells

WI-38 cells

Some original glass ampoules of WI-38 cells, created in 1962. Copyright Leonard Hayflick.

• Many people are aware of the history behind HeLa cells; isolated from Henrietta Lacks and used today in thousands of laboratories. But did you know about WI-38 cells? Isolated in June 1962 by Leonard Hayflick, these cells came from a legally aborted fetus in Sweden.

• Isolated at a time when the law did not require consent for the use of tissues in research, there is likely no recourse for the parents of the fetus or their heirs for compensation. Sigma Aldrich, a biotechnology company currently charges $424  for a vial of these cells.

• Unlike HeLa cells which are a cervical cancer cell line, the WI-38 cells are normal. These cells undergo a fixed number of cell divisions, usually 50 and then stop; a process known as cellular senescence.

• WI-38 cells were an invaluable tool to culture various human viruses for the manufacture of vaccines; rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles vaccines that have saved hundreds of millions of lives since.

• The controversy surrounding these cells still rages on today; because they are derived from an aborted fetus, many pro-life activists object to their use in research. Ironically, “the rubella vaccine, developed using WI-38 cells, has prevented thousands more abortions than have ever been prevented by Catholic religionists” according to Professor Stanley Plotkin, the researcher who developed the rubella vaccine.

• These cells have a fascinating history, and the full article on Nature is well worth a read.

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