Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, pathologist who discovered a cancer-causing virus – obituary

Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, who has died aged 102, was a pathologist and virologist who co-discovered a virus which causes a rare form of lymph-node cancer known as Burkitt lymphoma.

Epstein met Denis Burkitt at one of his lectures in 1961; interested in Burkitt’s description of a new cancer he had observed, Epstein agreed to biopsy the cells for him in London. Burkitt was based in Uganda and had observed that this new cancer usually affected the jaw – he later discovered that lymph nodes in the jaw area were the cause – leading to severe disfigurement and a quick, painful death, particularly in children under 10 years of age.

During their collaboration, Burkitt sent cancer cells to Epstein using the overnight BOAC Comet flight from Kampala to Heathrow, and Epstein, along with Yvonne Barr, his assistant at Middlesex Hospital, spent many months studying what they casually referred to as “Burkitt’s lymphoma”.

Believing that a virus must be causing the cancer, the pair made many failed attempts both to re-create the cancer in the lab in order to find out how it works, and also to identify the virus that they believed was causing it. All experiments failed, however, until one night the flight bearing the cancer cells from Uganda was diverted to Manchester due to fog in London.

When the sample arrived at Middlesex Hospital a day later, it was cloudy, indicating bacterial contamination. Looking more closely, Epstein realised that the cloudiness was, in fact, due to the malignant tumour cells separating from the remaining tissue, probably a result of the sample being shaken in transit. It was from these floating, separated cells that Epstein was able to grow a separate culture of cancerous cells that he was able to study more closely. Because the entire culture was malignant, the cells stayed alive indefinitely, and provided him with enough culture to identify, in 1964, a previously unknown virus.

On publication of the results in The Lancet, the duly-named Epstein-Barr virus was revealed as the first virus to be identified that could cause cancer in humans.

Future work proved that the Epstein-Barr virus – known as EBV – not only causes Burkitt lymphoma and glandular fever, the “kissing disease”, but is also responsible for other types of rare cancers, such as cancer in the back of the nose in China and tumours in patients with chronically low immune resistance (for example, in patients who have Aids or other immunosuppressant diseases).


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