President’s Update: August 2021

August 27, 2021

Vaccine Development Tells a Story of Perseverance and Sacrifice

Wendy Nickel

August 27, 2021

The topic of immunizations seems to open a Pandora’s box of emotions these days. Regardless of which side you stand on in the immunization debate, the development of vaccines has a truly fascinating history. In honor of National Immunization Awareness Month, I spent a little time learning about the history of vaccines and thought I’d share some of my findings. 

Although Dr. Edward Jenner is credited with performing the first smallpox vaccination in 1796, the antecedent to vaccination was variolation, a process that involved injecting a small amount of infectious material from smallpox postules under the skin. Those injected with smallpox material had a much lower mortality rate (1 in 50) compared to those who were not (3 in 10).  The subcutaneous method of variolation dates back to around 1000 CE and was introduced in India. This practice became commonplace in Europe throughout the 1700s.  However, in the late 1700s, Jenner and his colleagues noticed that people who had been infected with cowpox (usually people who worked on farms) didn’t get smallpox. This discovery ultimately led to the smallpox vaccine.  Smallpox was eradicated in 1977 and now only exists in two heavily secured laboratories in the US and Russia. The word “vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vacca” – meaning cow.

Another important chapter in vaccination history occurred in the 1950s when Henrietta Lacks, a black tobacco farmer, died at the age of 31 from an aggressive cervical cancer. At the time, it was common practice for physicians to collect human cells for research, without consent. Lacks’ cells had the ability to replicate indefinitely, while normal human cells are able to replicate on average around 50 times. This indefinite replication of cells allowed researchers to grow and study the cells in laboratory settings.  Researchers from all over the world have used this cell line (now knowns as HeLa cells) to further their research. The cells have contributed to many important scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and the study of the human papillomavirus, leading to today’s widely available HPV vaccine.

While the scientific breakthroughs attributed to the HeLa cells are remarkable and many greatly profited from new discoveries, Lacks and her family never benefited from these contributions.  Her family was not aware that her cells had been in wide use in research until the 1970s (nearly two decades after her death).  This injustice has led to a reckoning of sorts in research and healthcare communities. Informed consent is now required for those who donate tissue and cellular materials for research. Additionally, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) examine every research study involving human participants before it is approved. As for Henrietta Lacks, her legacy lives on and is being honored by Johns Hopkins, the institution where she received treatment. Several scholarships and symposia have been named in her honor and a new building on the Johns Hopkins campus will bear her name. A book and movie also were developed, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and share details of her legacy.

Immunization history tells a fascinating story of adaptation, innovation, and ethical considerations. Undoubtedly, the development of the COVID vaccines will offer another milestone chapter in the history of immunizations. How fortunate we are today that humans had the fortitude to continue developing a vaccine that was most effective for smallpox eradication. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Henrietta Lacks and her family for their many contributions to science, as well as understanding ethical considerations associated with medical care and research. As someone who desperately wants to protect my loved ones and community and for my children to be able to safely return to school, I am grateful for the perseverance and sacrifices of those who have contributed to vaccine development.

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