After the success of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, scientists turned to other “microbe-conquering” agendas, including finding connections between viruses and cancer. Even Jonas Salk turned to a cancer vaccine after preliminary data suggested that the measles virus was linked to leukemia. The renewed association between viruses and cancer in the 1960s provided the backdrop to the 1964 discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Fifty years later, various research teams, using a host of new technologies, have provided multiple lines of evidence that EBV does more than cause mononucleosis. As a 50-year anniversary text, Cancer Virus uses a straightforward chronology to tell us EBV’s complicated story, one in which we learn of the many scientists involved with EBV and their astounding findings. The narrative, however, does not stop in 2014, because EBV’s possible links between multiple sclerosis and individuals with previous mononucleosis infections serves notice that there is even more to learn about this particular herpes virus.
Cancer Virus’s authors are virologists who were, or continue to be, involved with EBV research. Lead author Dorothy H. Crawford is an emeritus professor of medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh. Crawford has written several similar books, including The Invisible Enemy (2000) and Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History (2007). Similar to her previous books, Cancer Virus is intended for an educated general audience. Crawford’s coauthors are Alan Rickinson and Ingólfur Johannessen, both active researchers on human tumor viruses, including EBV.
EBV was the first human virus to be seen with an electron microscope. With subsequent improvements in animal studies and refined antibody detection techniques, researchers were soon able to document how EBV targets B lymphocytes and, in some cases, causes the infected B cells to undergo uncontrolled division, resulting in the formation of tumors packed full of immortal B cells. Considering that approximately 95% of us have encountered EBV sometime during our lifetime, one wonders why not everyone develops EBV-implicated diseases such as Hodgkin’s disease, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, Burkett’s lymphoma, XLP syndrome, and organ graft disease.
Cancer Virus makes it clear that most of us allow EBV to lie dormant within our bodies for a lifetime. Small populations of EBV-infected people, however, must contend with EBV’s lytic phase. What triggers EBV to become active is not completely understood, but the authors do discuss the geographically related, age-related, and genetically related aspects of EBV cancers. For example, EBV-caused Burkett’s lymphoma is prevalent in children who live in malaria-prone areas, and nasopharyngeal carcinoma is 10 times more common in males living in south China. Because there are many different factors that appear to be associated with EBV tumors, Crawford makes it clear that the epidemiology of virus-caused cancers is rarely simple and clear-cut.
A more in-depth examination of molecular and immunological aspects associated with EBV may be found in the book Epstein-Barr Virus, edited by Erle S. Robertson (2005). However, Robertson’s academic text, which includes a chapter by Alan Rickinson, a coauthor of Cancer Virus, will set you back $300. Cancer Virus is considerably cheaper and keeps the science of EBV contextualized within the history of science, something that is often lacking in multiple-authored texts. This is not to say that the book is missing detailed research methodologies (and acronyms). Since Cancer Virus involves narratives about people and technology, the book holds your attention all the way to the end. What a leap it would be for biology instructors, especially those teaching microbiology or Advanced Placement biology, to use Cancer Virus as a required text. In addition, for those teachers who are not sure where to begin in broadening their nature-of-science content, this book would be a good place to start.
After finishing Cancer Virus, I found myself wanting to know more about the scientists, especially the husband-and-wife research team of Werner and Gertrude Henle in Philadelphia. The Henle story is one that might warrant a separate examination altogether. Cancer Virus, along with its accompanying (and much appreciated) maps, pictures, charts, reading list, and glossary, illuminates not only EBV, but also how science is done. I hope that this will not be the last book that Crawford publishes. Certainly, the Ebola virus could stand a similar treatment as heightened public curiosity about Ebola’s pathogenicity and control begs for an account, much like what Crawford has written about EBV.