Professor Paul Farrell to Give the Sir Anthony Epstein Lecture at EBV-KSHV Joint Meeting

Professor Paul Farrell, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Infectious Disease, Professor of Tumour Virology, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London, UK
Professor Paul Farrell, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Infectious Disease, Professor of Tumour Virology, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London, UK
I first met Tony in 1984, when I was invited to his Department in Bristol to give a lecture. 40 years ago !
Professor Paul Farrell to Give the Inaugural Sir Anthony Epstein Memorial Lecture at EBV-KSHV Joint Meeting
Professor Paul Farrell, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Infectious Disease, Professor of Tumour Virology, Main campus address: Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London, UK


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Paul Farrell’s research is mostly on mechanisms by which the human tumour virus Epstein-Barr Virus causes human cells to proliferate and the role of the virus in human diseases.

Download a copy of the EBV genetic map  EBV map (pdf file)

Download a pdf file of my 2019 EBV and Cancer article from Annual Reviews in Pathology for personal use only.

Epstein-Barr virus is a human herpesvirus that infects most people in the world early in life and then persists life-long. Primary EBV infection that is delayed until adolescence or adulthood frequently causes infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever). Most carriers of EBV show no symptoms or pathology but in some circumstances EBV is associated with human cancers, the virus normally being present in all of the malignant cells of an EBV associated case. These cancers include lymphomas in immunosuppressed people (either as a result of medication after transplant surgery or AIDS), Hodgkin’s disease, Burkitt’s lymphoma in central Africa, nasopharyngeal carcinoma in South-East Asia and some gastric carcinomas.

EBV infects human B lymphocytes and certain epithelial cells; infection of lymphocytes is readily accomplished in the laboratory and EBV drives the cells into a state of permanent proliferation. In young children, EBV also infects some T lymphocytes but this does not normally occur in adults. Auto-immune cross-reactions of EBV immune responses with neurons or glial cells are also thought likely to cause many cases of multiple sclerosis, particularly when the EBV infection was delayed until adulthood. 

Paul Farrell acted as Head of Molecular Virology at Imperial College 1996-2000 and 2011-2018. He was also Director of the London St Mary’s branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research 1986-2005, at the same location. From 2009 – 2016 he chaired the Research Grants committee for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research charity (now called Blood Cancer UK) and he has served on numerous international advisory and review committees. 

Current research is focussed on

Functional differences between type 1 and type 2 EBV

Worldwide EBV sequence variation in relation to EBV diseases

Professor Sir Anthony Epstein in 1994
Professor Sir Anthony Epstein in 1994 - CREDIT: Science Photo Library

Sir Anthony Epstein, pathologist who discovered the first virus known to cause cancer – A rerouted flight and the subsequent delay was crucial to the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus

Professor Sir Anthony Epstein CBE FRS, 1921-2024

21 February 2024

Professor Sir Anthony Epstein has passed away aged 102. Dr Darryl Hill, Head of the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, offers a remembrance.

Born in London in 1921, Tony Epstein studied medicine at Cambridge and the Middlesex Hospital, London. He specialised as a virologist and pathologist, studying the ways in which viruses cause disease. While still a research assistant, he worked on the so-called Rous Sarcoma virus from an unusual cancer that affects chickens, becoming very aware that viruses could cause cancer in animals.

In 1961 Tony attended a lecture by Denis Burkitt, a doctor working in Uganda. Burkitt described a peculiar cancer that he had observed. Tony spent the next couple of years trying to find a virus in the samples of these tumours, which was subsequently named “Burkitt’s Lymphoma”. He and his newly appointed PhD student, Yvonne Barr, struggled fruitlessly with nothing to show for all their hard work.

The deadlock was broken when a biopsy-bearing flight from Kampala had to be diverted to Manchester because of fog. By the time the sample reached Tony, it had gone cloudy – usually a sign of bacterial contamination that would consign it to the bin. Tony did not throw it away but examined it carefully. He discovered, to his surprise, that the cloudiness was due to lymphoid tumour cells that had been shaken off the biopsy in transit and were now floating merrily in suspension. Tony exploited this chance finding to grow cell lines, derived from the tumour, in culture. He showed that these stayed alive indefinitely.

Tony’s Eureka moment soon followed. He put one of the cell lines under the electron microscope for the first time, and almost immediately saw a round blob that others would have dismissed as an artefact, but which he recognised instantly as a virus. He took a photograph that proved his hypothesis and made his name, and indeed that of the virus. Epstein, Barr and their colleague Bert Achong reported their discovery in the Lancet, three years and one week after Tony’s meeting with Burkitt. The paper is now a citation classic – the scientific equivalent of an Oscar.

The significance of the discovery lay in the first-hand evidence that a virus could cause a human cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, is now known to cause malignancies other than glandular fever and Burkitt’s Lymphoma – notably cancers at the back of the nose, especially in China, and tumours that develop in people who are immunosuppressed, either through AIDS or by treatment to prevent rejection of transplanted organs.

Aside from his scientific excellence, Tony was a true leader. During his career, he was Professor of Pathology at Bristol for 17 years, from 1968 to 1985, and Head of the Department of Pathology for the first 15 of those years. During his time as Head of Pathology, Tony transformed what had been a modest department, largely committed to NHS diagnostic functions and teaching, to one with a broader range of activities involving human and veterinary pathology and a broad spectrum of research enlivened by frequent departmental seminars and lectures. The department became Pathology and Microbiology in 1983 and still thrives as the current School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine with world-class virology research still very much front and centre of the school’s mission to “turn science into medicine”.

Tony will be remembered at Bristol not only for the Epstein-Barr virus but for his leadership in a wide range of excellent research and teaching. Our annual lecture named in his honour will take on extra significance this year as we look to celebrate his outstanding contributions to science and to our University.