How an abortion saved millions of lives
In 1962, Leonard Hayflick created a cell strain from an aborted fetus.

The woman was four months pregnant, but she didn’t want another child. In 1962, at a hospital in Sweden, she had a legal abortion.

The fetus — female, 20 centimetres long and wrapped in a sterile green cloth — was delivered to the Karolinska Institute in northwest Stockholm. There, the lungs were dissected, packed on ice and dispatched to the airport, where they were loaded onto a transatlantic flight. A few days later, Leonard Hayflick, an ambitious young microbiologist at the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, unpacked that box.

Working with a pair of surgical scalpels, Hayflick minced the lungs — each about the size of an adult fingertip — then placed them in a flask with a mix of enzymes that fragmented them into individual cells. These he transferred into several flat-sided glass bottles, to which he added a nutrient broth. He laid the bottles on their sides in a 37 °C incubation room. The cells began to divide.

So began WI-38, a strain of cells that has arguably helped to save more lives than any other created by researchers. Many of the experimental cell lines available at that time, such as the famous HeLa line, had been grown from cancers or were otherwise genetically abnormal. WI-38 cells became the first ‘normal’ human cells available in virtually unlimited quantities to scientists and to industry and, as a result, have become the most extensively described and studied normal human cells available to this day.

Vaccines made using WI-38 cells have immunized hundreds of millions of people against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles. In the 1960s and 1970s, the cells helped epidemiologists to identify viral culprits in disease outbreaks. Their normality has made them valuable control cells for comparison with diseased ones. And at the Wistar Institute, as in labs and universities around the world, they remain a leading tool for probing the secrets of cellular ageing and cancer.