Solving the Riddle of EBV: A Review of Cancer Virus

In Cancer Virus: The discovery of the Epstein-Barr Virus, the book I recently finished, one of the most intriguing anecdotes recounted is how Michael Anthony Epstein attended a lecture by Denis Burkitt. For those who know anything about Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), the cause of infectious mononucleosis, the importance of these two individuals meeting is obvious as it launched a revolution in virology that lead to EBV being established as the first human tumor virus. 

To recount the major points of the story: Burkitt was a surgeon working in Africa who noticed a peculiar jaw tumor that had specific pathologic findings and a specific geography; Epstein was a researcher working on animal tumor viruses along with Yvonne Barr (see this Youtube clip of her in 2014). The ending of the story is no surprise: EBV was established as a causative factor--when coupled with malaria--in the development of Burkitt's lymphoma. 

Similar stories established EBV's role in nasopharyngeal carcinoma, certain types of Hodgkin's Disease, post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease (PTLD), and HIV-associated CNS lymphomas.

This book, written by EBV researchers Dorothy Crawford, Ingolfur Johannessen, and Alan Rickinson, provides a comprehensive picture of how the science, medicine, and epidemiology were integrated together. The result was a fundamental reshaping of the thinking in virology and oncology. It is obvious that the authors' expertise in the field greatly benefited the historical narrative account they provided. 

Control of tumor viruses through vaccination, as is done with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B virus (HBV), can be viewed as derivative applications stemming from understanding EBV.  For making that giant inductive leap and for their pathbreaking integrations Burkitt, Epstein, Barr, and their many collaborators (who included Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen as well as Werner and Gertrude Henle) deserve adulation.