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The Chakrabarty decision and the patenting of life forms


'Shape up the disqualification procedures to deny Hayflick his grant'
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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During which time of course I had resigned from Stanford and had, through some friends, been hired to do research at Children's Hospital in Oakland, California, very nearby. I applied for a grant to continue my research and won the grant, and the final step in winning a grant is to receive the money. The money was never forthcoming during – I'm talking now about this... during the seven years during which time discovery is going on, which means that each side is getting documentation and other information from the other side to prepare for the case, the suit, presumably a trial. And months went by. I knew I had won the grant, I was told I won the grant. The final act in winning a grant in the United States is for the council of the institute in which the grant is to be provided signs off on it.

Having been the founding member of that very council, and I was now off that council, I knew all the people, and I wrote to them and I said, 'I have been waiting six months for the money for my grant, it's not been forthcoming.' Without going into all of the details, the council decided at their next meeting that they would sit in their chairs and tell the... and explain to the director of the institute, who's always present, plus all of the reporters and laypeople who usually sit around in the room to cover the proceedings... Some of the proceedings are private and so they will ask people to leave, but most of them are public, open meetings. And they decided that they would start the meeting and then announce that they would not proceed with any activities of this committee until they learnt what happened to Hayflick's grant. Immediately, the director of the institute was called in. Well, he was there but he called in the director of the NIH [National Institutes of Health] itself, the top person, who said by phone after he'd learnt what the problem was, 'Please give me an hour or so to pursue this and find out what's going on.'

In one hour, he came back to the council meeting – this was all told to me later, of course – and said, 'The problem's resolved, Hayflick will get his funds.' I later learnt my attorneys learnt during this process of discovery that the following had happened. The major organisation that governs the National Institutes of Health is called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The director at that time was a man by the name of Joseph Califano, who ultimately became secretary of defence, I believe, appointed by a subsequent president.

So Califano was the chief person. We learnt in discovery... we saw documents, actual documents. One of the documents... and I've published this so it's now public information. One of the documents was addressed from Califano's chief attorney to his subordinates, and the memorandum said, and I'll quote it exactly, 'Please, shape up the disqualification procedures to deny Hayflick his grant.' Well, this was shocking. In the United States, the peer review system, which is what the system of assessing grant applications is called, that's the holy of holies. That is never tampered with. It is a... these are decisions made by scientists in good faith in respect to whether that applicant should receive the grant. There's never any outside influence, supposedly. And here we have a document with that statement written on it. So I can only assume what subsequent events were that in the mind of the director of the National Institute on... the National Institutes of Health went through. He must have said to himself, 'This is intolerable, we can't do this.' So I'm just guessing, of course, but what did happen was I finally did receive the funds.

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: Stanford, Children's Hospital, Oakland, California

Duration: 5 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013