By Serendipity and Persistence, Epstein Found the Epstein-Barr Virus That Can Cause a Cancer

(p. A23) In March 1961, Dr. Anthony Epstein, a pathologist at Middlesex Hospital in London, almost skipped a visiting physician’s afternoon lecture about children with exceptionally large facial tumors in Uganda.

. . .

Despite Dr. Epstein’s initial reluctance to attend the talk — he sat in the rear so he could make a quick escape — his excitement grew the longer Dr. Burkitt spoke. By the time the lecture was over, he knew that he would drop all of his ongoing projects to find the cause of that unusual malignancy.

. . .

“To have the insight and to be able to follow his hypothesis, with a little acknowledged serendipity, and identify the novel virus was pioneering,” Dr. Darryl Hill, who heads the University of Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine in England, said in an email.

. . .

When the 50th anniversary of E.B.V.’s discovery was celebrated in 2014, Dr. Epstein told an interviewer with the BBC what he had been thinking as he listened to Dr. Burkitt speak in 1961.

“I thought there must be some biological agent involved,” Dr. Epstein said. “I was working on chicken viruses which cause cancer. I had virus-inducing tumors at the front of my head.”

. . .

The discovery of the virus was not quick. Dr. Burkitt sent tumor biopsies to London from Kampala, Uganda, but Dr. Epstein couldn’t find viruses in the early specimens, according to Dr. Hill, who wrote a remembrance of Dr. Epstein for the University of Bristol.

When another biopsy shipment was diverted from Heathrow Airport to another airport, in Manchester, England, because of fog, the sample seemed doomed, Dr. Hill said.

“By the time the sample reached Tony, it had gone cloudy — usually a sign of bacterial contamination that would consign it to the bin,” Dr. Hill wrote in his tribute. “Tony did not throw it away but examined it carefully.”

“He discovered, to his surprise, that the cloudiness was due to lymphoid tumor cells that had been shaken off the biopsy in transit and were now floating merrily in suspension.” He continued, “Tony exploited this chance finding to grow cell lines, derived from the tumor, in culture. He showed that these stayed alive indefinitely.”

Studying his new sample with a powerful electron microscope, Dr. Epstein was able to spot the distinct viral signature of a herpes virus. Dr. Hill called the discovery a eureka moment.

For the full obituary, see:

Delthia Ricks. “Dr. Anthony Epstein, 102, Who Discovered Epstein-Barr Virus, Dies.” The New York Times (Friday, March 8, 2024): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated March 11 [sic], 2024, and has the title “Dr. Anthony Epstein, Pathologist Who Discovered Epstein-Barr Virus, Dies at 102.” Where there are minor differences in wording between versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *