Reviewed by Jim Young
Dorothy H. Crawford, Alan Rickinson, and Ingólfur Johannessen
Published by Oxford University Press
The publication of this book coincides with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus in 1964. The book – which is aimed at a general audience – is a medical research chronology that is part detective story; part biography(s); part travelogue, and it just bounces along the timeline with a readability that almost belies the intense research efforts that it is chronicling.
The reader is immediately drawn into accompanying Burkitt on his quest to understand the lymphoma that bears his name, and to experience the results of his insatiable curiosity and drive to illuminate the subject.
The next researchers in the saga, by way of their dogged research, move the story forward on an apparently pre-designated trajectory; a not unusual artefact of biographical chronologies. The personae dramatis are numerous, internationally based, and a surprising number were husband and wife research partnerships.
The authors of this book have engendered an appreciation of the sheer ingenuity needed to design experimental studies that will elucidate answers to complex pathological questions, and the need to repeat the process to answer subsequent questions arising from the results. In doing so they have brought to life the quintessential piquancy of the research paradigm. They have also elucidated the encouraging experience of the human intellectual resilience needed for the coordinated study of dauntingly complex research projects.
But as readers we can experience the fun of designing experiments and discussing their results without having to wait years. We are spared the ache of apparent dead ends, and the long wait for dramatic new insights. Similarly we can be enthralled by developments in experimental molecular biology techniques that enabled the discoveries documented in this book.
By end of Chapter 4 the E-B virus has almost taken on a personality, but a malevolent one that exacts a terrible human cost. Indeed if it were not for the attendant human tragedy of these malignant tumours one might be forgiven for anthropomorphizing EBV into an evolutionary Moriarty to these Sherlock Holmes.
The book describes how serendipity appeared at crucial points in the story when unrelated research at other locations proved synergistic and encouraged wide-ranging and fruitful collaborations. Presented with such occurrences we must remind ourselves that this is not a fiction, even when there are some dramatic heart-warming successes.
The authors’ enthusiasm for the subject is infectious (no pun intended) and their description of the tenacious conceptualisation by the researchers of a panoramic chimera of evidence is the epitome of human scientific endeavour.
Research into EBV is ongoing and the number of active researchers in the pool is increasing. This augurs well for future discoveries aimed at treatment or prevention with vaccine for example. One thing that this story exemplifies is the need for a broad church of researchers, research groups and disciplines if we are to capitalise on future serendipity.
I will risk the use of a trite or even glib phrase to attest that this book was one that I truly could not put down.