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Published on:
Tuesday 30 April 2024
In Memoriam

Obituary: Sir Anthony Epstein 1921-2024

It is with great sadness that Wolfson has learned of the passing of Fellow of the College Sir Anthony Epstein, one of the discoverers of the Epstein-Barr virus, at the age of 102. His work profoundly changed how scientists approach the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of a wide range of cancers and other diseases, and left an enduring mark on the fields of pathology, virology and oncology.

Tony Epstein was born in London in 1921 and was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and Middlesex Hospital Medical School. After completing his medical training, Epstein began research into the Rous sarcoma retrovirus, the first oncogenic (cancer-causing) virus observed in animals.

In the early 1960s, Epstein began research into a peculiar tumour characterised by the rapid multiplication of white blood cells, which was first identified in Ugandan children by the surgeon Dennis Burkitt. In 1963, a shipment of tumour samples being flown from Uganda to London was diverted to Manchester due to poor weather, and when inspected appeared to have been contaminated. When Epstein and Yvonne Barr examined the samples under the microscope, however, the cloudy fluid that had developed around the samples proved to contain free-floating lymphoma cells. This represented the very first culture of a human lymphocytic cell, which would prove to be an essential technique for future investigations. Such cultures are now known as ‘EB’ cells.

Further examination by Epstein and his research assistant Bert Achong using an early electron microscope revealed that these cells contained particles of what was soon known as the ‘Epstein-Barr virus’ (EBV) – the first human cancer virus known to medical science. A member of the herpes family, EBV is often silently contracted in infancy and is carried by over 90% of adults worldwide. Infection in adulthood can cause glandular fever (or mononucleosis), while EBV is associated with cancers including around 40% of Hodgkin lymphomas, some stomach cancers, and Burkitt’s lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma in certain populations. The virus has recently also been implicated in cases of multiple sclerosis and long Covid. Combined, these represent an enormous disease burden worldwide.

“I was exhilarated to observe unequivocal viral particles in a cultured cell in the very first grid square to be searched […] I recognized the virus at once as having the typical morphology of the herpes group.” – Sir Anthony Epstein

It took more than a decade – and a major study involving over 42,000 participants – to produce convincing evidence that EBV was responsible for these cancers in humans. Epstein continued to work on EBV for the rest of his career, even in the face of scepticism, devoting his energies to understanding its oncogenic mechanisms and searching for a vaccine. His work provided the first evidence of viral carcinogenesis in humans and has since led to major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of EBV-associated diseases. His work on EBV laid the groundwork for the discovery of other oncogenic viruses including HPV (human papillomavirus), which can cause cervical cancer and is now the target of routine vaccination in the UK.

Epstein was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979, was made CBE in 1985, and was knighted in 1991 for services to medicine. He became an Extraordinary Fellow of Wolfson College in 1986, and sat on Wolfson’s Governing Body until 2001, when he was made Honorary Fellow of the College. Sir Tony enjoyed a long association with Wolfson, presenting his most recent lecture in 2014 at the age of 92, and celebrated his centenary year with a party at the College. He is survived by his long-term partner, the virologist Kate Ward, and his daughter and two sons from a previous marriage.

The College looks forward to honouring his memory and accomplishments in the coming year.

Photo: Epstein pictured on the occasion of his 2014 lecture at Wolfson College. Credit: Stuart Bebb/Wolfson College Archives