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Pioneering the Material Transfer Agreement


Providing researchers with WI-38 cell cultures
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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I will now switch to another, in my judgement, fascinating story that was extremely important in biology, in biology generally. And it all started when I was given a contract by the National Institutes of Health, when I first started my work in the early 1960s, to provide starter cultures of my cell strain WI-38, the normal human cell strain, to researchers especially in the United States, but, as it turned out, all over the world.

This contract was given to me by the NIH, because when I described my work and especially the sensitivity of WI-38 to human viruses and their use in virology and in other areas of research that required the use of a normal human cell, the demand for cultures for me to provide my colleagues worldwide was so great that I was beginning to spend full time filling orders and not doing the research I wanted to do.

The NIH came to my rescue, in particular a gentleman whose name is Bob Stevenson, who was an NIH employee, and he offered a contract to the Wistar Institute and therefore to me to provide cultures to people who wanted them, and with the monies from that contract I could hire a technician or two to do the culturing and the packaging and the mailing, so that decreased my burden considerably. And that continued until I left the Wistar Institute in 1968 and joined Stanford University.

But when I went to Stanford University, the contract ended, but it was picked up by the National Institute on Aging, from whom I had a large grant to do research, and the demand for cell culture still continued. The demand not only included researchers and academic institutions but people in commercial organisations, in vaccine manufacturers throughout the world. Virtually every major country had vaccine manufacturers and those manufacturers received the cells from me gratis. And in fact I sent... I don't recall whether I mentioned this earlier, but I was asked by the World Health Organisation to establish repositories around the world for... so that distribution could be made from those repositories and not by me, saving me a substantial amount of work. One of the repositories was in London at the Medical Research Council Laboratory – then in Hampstead; I don't believe they're in Hampstead anymore – and the major personality who ran that distribution, that collection, was Dr Frank Perkins, the gentleman who was charged with the responsibility of licensing all vaccines in the United Kingdom. And we became very good friends until his premature death; a wonderful man. So one must have an image of the worldwide demand for these cells, so that when I went to Stanford University, the contract read that I should be supplying only people working in the field of aging, because the contract came from that institute and that's what they... how they preferred to handle it. However, I was still receiving requests for cells from people not in the field of aging and people in commercial institutions who wanted the cells. And I couldn't deny them this, because there is a fundamental belief or rule – it's an unwritten rule, of course – in science that when colleagues ask for materials that you have that you must supply it; not that you must but you should supply them with materials, within reason, and this is a collegial arrangement that goes unprinted but well understood. And so I followed that... those rules and provided people who were not in the field of aging, including commercial establishments, with WI-38. And that was costing my grant money because I had to have my technicians help do that, I had to pay for the costs of the culture vessels that were mailed to these people, these non-aging requesters, and the mailing costs as well. And so I charged them the same amount of money as was charged for a culture by the American Type Culture Collection. This is a quasi-government organisation now located in Arlington, Virginia, or close by, Manassas, I believe, who supply American and foreign researchers with cultures like WI-38. So that that was a perfect arrangement for me to follow, and whatever they charged their customers – this is a non-profit organisation, remember, ATCC – I charged as well, without doing any mathematics of what I should be charging. And it was always a nominal amount. I believe it started out at $50 per culture. It rose, I believe, later to $75 per starter culture, which is a rather nominal sum for receiving this kind of material. And I kept accurate records of who I was sending cultures to, and thought to myself that one of these days, this has to be resolved, it has to be determined who these funds belong to, that is the funds that were received for preparing and mailing cultures to non-aging researchers and to commercial organisations.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: National Institutes of Health, Wistar Institute, Stanford University, National Institute of Ageing, Hampstead, American Type Culture Collection, Frank Perkins

Duration: 7 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013