Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) can occur in children whose mothers contracted the rubella virus, sometimes called German measles, during pregnancy. Depending on the gestational period when the mother contracts rubella, an infant born with CRS may be unaffected by the virus or it may have severe developmental defects. The most severe effects of the virus on fetal development occur when the mother contracts rubella between conception and the first trimester. Defects from maternal rubella in the first trimester are included in the term congenital rubella syndrome, but physicians and researchers specifically refer to those defects as rubella embryopathy. Developmental defects are less severe if the mother contracts rubella in the second trimester, and they are generally negligible if the infection occurs in the third trimester. Prenatal rubella infection can cause birth defects which include deafness, compromised vision, abnormal heart development, and damage to the central nervous system which can lead to compromised cognition and learning disabilities.

In Australia in the 1940s, Norman McAlister Gregg observed a connection between pregnant women who contracted the rubella virus, or German measles, and cataract formation in their children's eyes. Gregg published his findings in the 1941 article Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother in Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society of Australia. In the article, Gregg analyzed seventy-eight cases of congenital cataracts and suggested that the mothers' environmental factors could cause birth defects, otherwise known as teratogenic effects. Gregg's paper on the teratogenic effects of an environmental agent, the rubella virus, changed the study of birth defects to include viruses as potential causes or teratogens.

In the US during the late 1960s, Stanley Alan Plotkin, John D. Farquhar, Michael Katz, and Fritz Buser isolated a strain of the infectious disease rubella and developed a rubella vaccine with a weakened, or attenuated, version of the virus strain. Rubella, also called German measles, is a highly contagious disease caused by the rubella virus that generally causes mild rashes and fever. However, in pregnant women, rubella infections can lead to developmental defects in their fetuses. Plotkin and his collaborators weakened a strain of rubella, called RA 27/3, by growing the virus in WI-38 cells, a strain of human embryonic cells developed at the Wistar Institute by Leonard Hayflick in the early 1960s. Their research led to the development of a rubella vaccine, which prevented rubella in children and congenital rubella syndrome in the fetuses of pregnant women who had contracted rubella.

The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was created by Maurice Hilleman in 1971 at the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research, a pharmaceutical company in West Point, Pennsylvania. It combined three separate vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella, common and sometimes fatal diseases. Measles causes a red skin rash and severe fevers that can be fatal. Mumps causes fever and swelling of the salivary glands in the mouth and jaw, while rubella causes milder fevers and skin rashes. Pregnant women that contract rubella sometimes pass the virus to their fetuses, causing congenital rubella syndrome, which results in malformations of the eyes, ears, heart, and brain in the fetuses. The MMR vaccine has protected millions of people from contracting the potentially deadly diseases of measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as prevented the development congenital rubella syndrome in the fetuses.

Maurice Ralph Hilleman developed vaccines at the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research in West Point, Pennsylvania, during the twentieth century. Over the course of his career at Merck, Hilleman created over forty vaccines, making him one of the most prolific developers of vaccine in the twentieth century. Of the fourteen vaccines commonly given to children in the US by 2015, Hilleman was responsible for eight of them. Hilleman's most widely used vaccine was his measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Hilleman's MMR vaccine prevented many diseases and also rubella in millions of children and pregnant women. Rubella in pregnant women often led to congenital rubella syndrome in the fetus, causing severe malformations.

Stanley Alan Plotkin developed vaccines in the United States during the mid to late twentieth century. Plotkin began his research career at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studied the rubella virus. In pregnant women, the rubella virus caused congenital rubella syndrome in the fetus, which led to various malformations and birth defects. Using WI-38 cells, a line of cells that originated from tissues of aborted fetuses, Plotkin successfully created RA27/3, a weakened strain of the rubella virus, which he then used to develop a rubella vaccine. Plotkin’s rubella vaccine has prevented birth defects due to congenital rubella in developing fetuses and newborns.

From 1958 to 1961, Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead in the US developed a way in the laboratory to cultivate strains of human cells with complete sets of chromosomes. Previously, scientists could not sustain cell cultures with cells that had two complete sets of chromosomes like normal human cells (diploid). As a result, scientists struggled to study human cell biology because there was not a reliable source of cells that represented diploid human cells. In their experiments, Hayflick and Moorhead created lasting strains of human cells that retained both complete sets of chromosomes. They then froze samples from the cultures so that the cells remained viable for future research. They also noted that cells could divide only a certain number of times before they degraded and died, a phenomenon later called the Hayflick limit. Hayflick and Moorhead’s experiment enabled research on developmental biology and vaccines that relied on human cell strains.

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