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Who owns WI-38 and similar cell strains?


The issue of disposition of funds received for WI-38 cell culture
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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Now, moving forward in time and going in a different direction, and then I'll tie these two directions together for a very important event. The second important event that will be tied to what I just described was the establishment of the National Institute on Aging, which became one of the several institutes that are part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIA was established in 1974. I was in fact very much involved in the establishment of that institute. It was the law that established it was... first reached President Nixon's desk and he vetoed it, but it was revived a year or two later, and Nixon ultimately did sign it and the institute was established; that in itself is an interesting story that I will not pursue. The... I became a member of the first council of the National Institute on Aging. The council is established by Congress to oversee the activities of the particular institute that the council is enacted for, and in fact I became the chairperson of the executive committee of that council, found... so I was a founding member of the council.

Of course, there was a search for a director of this new institute, and I ultimately found myself being considered for the directorship and ultimately asked to agree to become a candidate, which I did do, and was ultimately offered the position by the National Institute on Aging. I was asked to visit the institute, and in fact at that time there was a turnover in directors. The new director coming in was a man by the name of Fredrickson, Donald Fredrickson, who was at that time the director of the National Science Foundation; I'm sorry, not the National Science Foundation, the Academy of Science in Washington.

I met Fredrickson at his office there and we were... we drove to the NIH, and while driving, he said... oh, I had previously told the people who had made the offer to me verbally, to come visit and to be a candidate, a serious candidate, it turned out, because they actually made me the offer, I told them that I had a problem that I wanted to be resolved before I seriously considered this offer. The problem that I wanted to be resolved was the disposition of the funds that were raised, or funds that I received, to pay for the costs of the cultures that were sent outside of the contract, cultures sent to people doing research in the non-aging field. There are hundreds, including the NIH itself, by the way, and including commercial organisations. The sum of money was not an extraordinary sum of money. My recollection is it was about $15,000 or $20,000, so it was a sum that had to be disposed of in a... in an acceptable way, and it also was significantly meaningful for me to raise the issue and say, 'I want this settled before I become serious about this offer, because I don't want it to come back to haunt me in some way that would be unexpected for me.'

And so while riding in the car with Fredrickson, he said, 'I understand you have a concern that you want resolved.' I said, 'Yes, I do', and I explained it to him – he's not a biologist so he didn't really understand the details - because there was a key principle involved, and this was a very crucial key concept, and I might say, parenthetically, that it will not be resolved legally – despite my efforts for 45 years – it will not be resolved legally until June of the year 2013 by the Supreme Court of the United States. So with that tickler, I'll return to the story and then describe why it will be determined in June of 2013.

The concept is this: it is the question of title, that is ownership of a self-reproducing system. WI-38 is a self-reproducing system, of course. The cells are frozen in little ampules about that big that contain the cells, frozen, and the ampule itself, that entity has no real value. What is valuable is when you take the cells from the ampule, reconstitute them, put them in bottles, and then allow the cells to multiply so that you can produce a dozen bottles, a million bottles, or... so that the cells are increasing in numbers to extraordinary numbers capable of being commercially exploited for vaccine production or other products.

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 Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, Academy of Science, Donald Fredrickson

Duration: 6 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013