In 1911 Peyton Rous, at the Rockefeller Institute, discovered the Rous sarcoma virus; the first virus known to cause solid tumors (1). Although Rous’ eponymous virus also would be known as the prototype retrovirus, his discovery generated only scant interest at the time, and would not be recognized by the Nobel Committed until 65 years later! [Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. Fortunately, Rous had longevity on his side. He died 4 years after receiving the prize, at age 87.]
In 1976 Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, then at the University of California San Francisco, discovered that the Rous sarcoma virus oncogene, v-src, as well as the oncogenes of several other tumorgenic retroviruses, actually were derived from cellular genes that normally play an important role in controlling cell division and differentiation (2). Moreover, Varmus and Bishop showed that these cellular “proto-oncogenes” can be altered by mutation, to become “oncogenes” that contribute to cancer. [Varmus and Bishop received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of proto-oncogenes.]
But what is the actual activity of the protein coded for by the normal cellular c-src, and by v-src as well? The story of that discovery is rather delightful and begins as follows.
In 1978, Raymond Erikson and coworker Marc Collette, then at the University of Colorado Medical Center, were the first researchers to isolate the Src protein. They accomplished this by first preparing lysates from avian and mammalian cells, which had been transformed in culture into tumor cells by Rous sarcoma virus. Next, they precipitated those lysates with antisera from rabbits that bore Rous sarcoma virus-induced tumors. The premise of their strategy was that antibodies from the tumor-bearing rabbits would recognize and precipitate proteins that were specific to cells transformed by the virus .
With the Src protein now in hand, Ericson and Collette next sought its function. They initially asked whether Src might have protein kinase activity (i.e., an activity that adds a phosphate group to a protein.). This was a reasonable possibility because protein phosphorylation was already known to play a role in regulating various cellular processes, including cell growth and differentiation.
Ericson and Collette tested their premise by incubating their Src immunoprecipitates with [γ-32P] ATP (i.e. 32P-labelled adenosine triphosphate). In agreement with their proposal, they found that the antibody molecules in the Src immunoprecipitates had been phosphorylated. [Note that Src’s protein kinase activity was simultaneously and independently discovered by Varmus and Bishop.]
Ericson and Collette also carried out control experiments that were particularly revealing. When the same rabbit antisera was used to immunoprecipitate extracts from normal cells, or extracts from cells infected with a transformation-defective mutant of Rous sarcoma virus, no signs of protein kinase activity were seen in those immunoprecipitates. What’s more, the protein kinase activity was found to be temperature sensitive in immunoprecipitates from cells infected with a mutant Rous sarcoma virus that was temperature-sensitive for transformation.
These control experiments confirmed that the protein kinase activity in the immunoprecipitates was coded for by the virus. What’s more, they confirmed that the kinase activity of the retroviral Src protein plays an essential role in transformation. Furthermore, when taken with the earlier findings of Varmus and Bishop, they implied that the kinase activity of the cellular Src protein plays a key role in the control of normal cell proliferation.
While Erickson and coworkers were carrying out the above experiments in Denver, Walter Eckhart and TonyHunter, at the Salk Institute, were looking into the basis for the transforming activity of the mouse polyomavirus middle T (MT) protein. [Unlike Rous sarcoma virus, which is a retrovirus, the mouse polyomavirus is a member of the Polyomavirus family of small DNA tumor viruses. SV40 is the prototype Polyomavirus.]
Since Erickson’s group was finding that Src expresses protein kinase activity, Eckhart and Hunter asked whether the polyomavirus MT protein might likewise be a protein kinase. Thus, as Erickson and Collette had done in the case of Src, Eckhart and Hunter examined immunoprecipitates of MT to see if they too might express a protein kinase activity, and found that indeed they did.
Interestingly, it was not known at the time of these experiments that MT actually does not express any intrinsic enzymatic activity of its own. Instead, MT interacts with the cellular Src protein to activate its protein kinase activity. See Aside 1.
[Aside 1: For aficionados, MT is a membrane-associated protein that interacts with several cellular proteins. Importantly, the phosphorylation events carried out by MT-activated Src cause a variety of signal adaptor molecules [e.g., Shc, Grb2, and Sos] and other signal mediators [e.g., PI3K and PLCγ] to bind to the complex, thereby triggering a variety of mitogenic signaling pathways. These facts were not yet known when Eckhart and Hunter were doing their experiments.]
At the time of these experiments, serine and threonine were the only amino acids known to be phosphorylated by protein kinases. In fact, Erikson and Collette, as well as Varmus and Bishop, believed that threonine was the amino acid phosphorylated by the Src kinase (see below). Consequently, Hunter asked whether the polyomavirus MT protein likewise would phosphorylate threonine. [Recall that MT actually does not express any intrinsic enzymatic activity of its own.]
Hunter’s experimental procedure was relatively straightforward and reminiscent of Erikson’s and Collette’s. It involved incubating immunoprecipitates of MT with [γ-32P]ATP, hydrolyzing the immunoglobulin, and then separating the amino acids in the hydrolysate by electrophoresis. But, to Hunter’s surprise, the position of the labeled amino acid in his electropherogram did not correspond to that of either threonine or serine.
Hunter was well aware that tyrosine is the only other amino acid with a free hydroxyl group that might be a target for the MT kinase activity. And, while there was no precedent for a tyrosine-specific protein kinase, Hunter proceeded to ask whether the polyomavirus MT protein indeed might phosphorylate tyrosine.
Hunter began by synthesizing a phosphotyrosine molecule that could be used as a standard marker against which to compare the labeled amino acid in a repeat of his earlier experiment. And, to his pleasure, Hunter found that the amino acid that was phosphorylated by the MT kinase activity ran precisely with the phosphotyrosine standard marker in his new electropherograms.
But why had other researchers not detected tyrosine phosphorylation earlier? It was partly because phosphotyrosine accounts for only about 0.03% of phosphorylated amino acids in normal cells. The remaining 99.97% are phosphoserine and phosphothreonine. But, again, that is not the entire explanation. The rest is truly precious.
In Hunter’s own words, he was “too lazy to make up fresh buffer” before doing his experiments. Had the buffer been fresh, its pH would have been the usual 1.9; a pH that, unbeknownst to all at the time, does not separate phosphotyrosine from phosphothreonine during the electrophoresis procedure. The pH of the old buffer that Hunter used in his experiment had inadvertently dropped to 1.7; a pH at which phosphotyrosine is resolved from phosphothreonine. That fact enabled Hunter to discriminate phosphotyrosine from phosphothreonine for the first time. Thus, Hunter attributes his hugely important discovery to his laziness.
The finding that tyrosine is the amino acid phosophorylated by the polyomavirus MT protein kinase activity led Hunter and his Salk Institute-colleague Bart Sefton to ask whether Src too might phosphorylate tyrosine, rather than serine or threonine (4). Indeed, they found that the retroviral Src protein, as well the normal cellular Src protein, function as tyrosine-specific protein kinases. [Recall that it became clear only later that MT actually has no intrinsic enzyme activity of its own and that it acts through Src.] Moreover, the levels of phosphotyrosine were 10-fold higher in cells infected with wild-type Rous sarcoma virus than in control cells, consistent with the premise that Src’s protein tyrosine kinase activity accounts for the altered growth potential of those cells.
Subsequently, Stanley Cohen, at Vanderbilt University, discovered that the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor contains an intrinsic protein-tyrosine kinase activity, further underscoring the importance of protein-tyrosine kinases in the normal control of cell proliferation. [Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Rita Levi-Montalcini for their discoveries of growth factors, including EGF.] Subsequent studies identified additional receptor protein-tyrosine kinases, such as the fetal growth factor (FGF) receptor, and non-receptor protein-tyrosine kinases, such as Abl, each of which activates a mitogenic intracellular signaling pathway.
Tony Hunter and coworkers went on to demonstrate that protein-tyrosine kinases play key roles in additional crucial cellular processes, including cellular adhesion, vesicle trafficking, cell communication, the control of gene expression, protein degradation, and immune responses. Moreover, discoveries regarding the role of protein-tyrosine kinases in cell transformation and cancer gave rise to a promising new rational approach to cancer therapy; i.e., the targeting of protein-tyrosine kinases. For example, the drug Gleevec, which inhibits activation of the Abl and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) tyrosine kinases, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia and several types of gastrointestinal tumors.
Harald zur Hausen (1936- ) was awarded a share of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that papillomaviruses cause cervical cancer. He received the award jointly with Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who were given their portion for discovering HIV (1). Before getting on with zur Hausen’s story per se, we begin with bit of earlier history.
Harald zur Hausen in 2008
Genital warts are benign epithelial tumors that have been known and associated with sexual promiscuity since the time of the ancient Greeks. In 1907 these lesions were unequivocally proven to be an infectious disease by Italian researcher, G. Ciuffo, who showed that they can be transmitted by filtered extracts of wart tissue; a finding which also implied that the etiologic agent is a virus. Ciuffo inoculated himself to advance his case.
Ciuffo’s finding is relevant to our story since members of the papillomavirus family of DNA viruses are the cause of warts. What’s more, and importantly, some papillomaviruses also cause malignant cervical carcinomas.
In 1933 Richard Shope, at the Rockefeller Institute, became the first researcher to isolate a papillomavirus, the cottontail rabbit papillomavirus. Shope went on to show that this virus is the cause of skin papillomas in its rabbit host. This finding by Shope was the first to demonstrate that a DNA virus can be tumorigenic.
Years earlier, in 1911, Peyton Rous discovered that an RNA virus—the Rous sarcoma virus (the prototype retrovirus)—causes solid tumors in chickens. Peyton Rous was Richard Shope’s friend and colleague at the Rockefeller Institute. In 1934 Shope asked Rous to characterize the warts that the rabbit papillomavirus induces in jackrabbits. Rous found those warts to be benign tumors that could progress to malignant carcinomas.
Despite the earlier findings of Ciuffo, Shope, and others, the notion that genital warts in humans is a sexually transmitted malady was slow to gain acceptance. Oddly, perhaps, recognition of that truth was prompted by a 1954 report that American servicemen, who had been serving in Korea, were transmitting genital warts to their wives upon returning to the U.S (T. J. Barrett, et al., J. Am. Med. Assoc. 154:333, 1954). [Sexually transmitted diseases were a long-standing problem in the military. Servicemen were most often infected by sex workers who frequented the vicinity of military quarters.]
The key discoveries of this tale are Harald zur Hausen’s 1983 and 1984 findings that two human papillomavirus subtypes, HPV-16 and HPV-18, together account for about 70% of all cervical cancers. Considering that more than 120 distinct HPV subtypes have been identified, the high degree of association of cervical carcinoma with only two of these subtypes provided compelling evidence for the viral etiology of this malignancy. Later studies showed that HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58 are responsible for another 20% of cervical cancers. Indeed, an HPV infection is present in virtually all cervical carcinomas. See Aside 1.
[Aside 1: Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the United States. However, the number of cervical cancer deaths in the industrialized world decreased dramatically over the last 40 years, largely because of the Pap test, which can detect pre-cancer cervical lesions in their early stages. The CDC website reports 12,109 cervical cancer cases and 4,092 deaths from cervical cancer in the U.S. in 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available). Worldwide, cervical cancer was responsible for 275,000 deaths in 2008. About 88% of these deaths were in developing countries (J. Ferlay et al., Int. J. Cancer, 127:2893, 2010).]
Harald zur Hausen was a child in Germany during the Second World War, growing up in Gelsenkirchen-Buer, which was then a center for German coal production and oil refining and, consequently, a major target for allied bombing. [The city also contained a women’s sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Nazis used its prisoners for slave labor.] All members of zur Hausen’s family survived the war. However, zur Hausen’s primary education contained significant gaps because schools were closed during the allied bombing (2).
Despite the gaps in zur Hausen’s early education, he was keenly interested in biology and dreamed of becoming a scientist. Yet at the University of Bonn he opted to study medicine, rather than biology. After zur Hausen received his medical degree, he worked as a medical microbiologist at the University of Düsseldorf, where he enjoyed the opportunity that the University gave him to carry out research on virus-induced chromosomal aberrations.
Although zur Hausen was fascinated by his research, he was soon aware of the deficiencies in his scientific background. So, in 1966 he looked to enhance his proficiency as a scientist by securing a postdoctoral position in the laboratories of Gertrude and Werner Henle at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The Henles were a German-born husband and wife research team, known for their work on flu vaccines. More apropos to our story, they are also known for demonstrating the link between the recently discovered Epstein-Barr virus (EBV; a herpesvirus) and infectious mononucleosis, as well as for showing that EBV is the etiologic agent of Burkitt’s lymphoma; a cancer found in parts of Africa. EBV was, in fact, the first virus associated with a cancer in humans. [Gertrude Henle’s mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1943.]
Although zur Hausen took part in the Henles’ experiments involving EBV, he did so grudgingly because he was intimidated by his inexperience in molecular biology. In his own words: “I urged Werner Henle to permit me to work with a different agent, namely adenovirus type 12, hoping that this relatively well established system would permit me to become acquainted with molecular methods. He reluctantly agreed. I started to work eagerly on the induction of specific chromosomal aberrations in adenovirus type 12-infected human cells…and, to please my mentor, I demonstrated electron microscopically the presence of EBV particles directly in… Burkitt’s lymphoma cells (2).”
In 1969 zur Hausen returned to Germany to take an appointment as an independent scientist at the University of Wurzburg. His research was now focused entirely on EBV. Specifically, he wanted to challenge the prevailing view that Burkitt’s lymphoma tumors are persistently infected with EBV (i.e., that the tumors continuously produce low levels of the virus).
I presume that zur Hausen was interested in this issue because it was reasonable to believe that EBV gene expression is necessary to maintain the neoplastic state of the Burkitt’s tumor cells. Persistent infection would be one means by which viral genes could be carried by the cells. But zur Hausen believed that EBV DNA might be maintained in Burkitt’s lymphoma cells, even if they did not produce EBV particles.
Werner Henle in Philadelphia (and also George Klein in Stockholm) sent zur Hausen a large number of Burkitt’s lymphoma cell lines and tumor biopsies to aid in his study. One of those cell lines, the Raji line of Burkitt’s lymphoma cells, did not produce EBV particles. Nevertheless, zur Hausen isolated sufficient EBV DNA from the Raji cells to prove that multiple copies of EBV DNA were maintained in them. This was the first time that tumor virus DNA was shown to be present in malignant human cells that were not producing virus. See Aside 2.
[Aside 2: In 1968 Renato Dulbecco and co-workers were the first to discover viral DNA integrated by covalent bonds into cellular DNA (J. Sambrook et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A. 60:1288, 1968). They were studying cells transformed by the polyomavirus, SV40. Integration explained how SV40 genes could be stably maintained and expressed in transformed cells, in the absence of productive infection. Integration is now recognized as a key event in cell transformation by members of several virus families, including the polyomaviruses, papillomaviruses, and the oncogenic retroviruses.
The situation in the case of EBV, a herpesvirus, is different, as herpesviruses are able to enter into a latent state in host cells. In the latent state the viral genome is maintained as an episome, and only a subset of the viral genes (i.e., those concerned with latency) are expressed. The episomal viral genome is replicated by the cellular DNA replication machinery during the cell cycle S phase, and a viral gene product, EBNA-1, ensures that viral genomes are equally partitioned between the daughter cells. In 1978 George Klein and co-workers were the first to demonstrate episomal EBV DNA in a cell line derived from a Burkitt’s lymphoma biopsy (S. Koliais et al., J. Natl. Cancer. Inst. 60:991, 1978).]
In 1972, while zur Hausen’s attention was focused on EBV and Burkitt’s lymphoma, his research direction took a providential turn that would lead to his most important discoveries. It happened as follows.
Recent seroepidemiological evidence was suggesting a link between herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), a well known genital infection, and cervical cancer. Since HSV-2, like EBV, is a herpesvirus, and since zur Hausen had already demonstrated that EBV DNA is present in Burkitt’s lymphoma tumor cells, zur Hausen believed he was well positioned to search for HSV-2 DNA in cervical cancer biopsies. However, in this instance, all his repeated attempts failed.
Harald zur Hausen then came across anecdotal reports of genital warts converting to squamous cell carcinomas. Importantly, those genital warts were known to contain typical papillomavirus particles. Taking these two points into account, zur Hausen considered the possibility that papillomaviruses, rather than herpesviruses, might be the cause of cervical carcinomas. Indeed, his initial thought was that the genital wart papillomavirus might also be the etiologic agent for cervical carcinomas.
Thus, Harald zur Hausen began his foray into papillomavirus research. His first experiments found papillomavirus particles in benign plantar (cutaneous) warts. His next experiments demonstrated that there are multiple papillomavirus subtypes. [In brief, zur Hausen used in vitro-transcribed plantar papillomavirus RNA as a hybridization probe against the DNA from various plantar and genital warts. Only some of the plantar wart DNAs, and none of the genital wart DNAs, reacted with his planter wart RNA probe. Restriction endonuclease patterns of a variety of human papillomavirus isolates confirmed that the HPVs comprise a heterogeneous virus family.]
Harald zur Hausen’s next experiments sought to detect papillomavirus DNA in cervical carcinoma biopsies. However, his initial trials in this crucial undertaking were unsuccessful. He was using DNA from HPV-6 (isolated from a genital wart) as a hybridization probe in those failed attempts. But zur Hausen and co-workers had at hand a number of additional HPV subtypes, from which they prepared other DNA probes. DNA from HPV-11 (from a laryngeal papilloma) indeed detected papillomavirus DNA in cervical carcinomas.
In 1983, two of Zur Hausen’s former students, Mathias Dürst and Michael Boshart, using HPV-11 DNA as a probe, isolated a new HPV subtype, designated HPV-16, from a cervical carcinoma biopsy. In the following year, they isolated HPV-18 from another cervical carcinoma sample. Harald zur Hausen’s group soon determined that HPV-16 is present in about 50% of cervical cancer biopsies, while HPV-18 is present in slightly more than 20%. [The famous HeLa line of cervical cancer cells contains HPV-18 DNA.]
Additional key discoveries took place during the next several years, including the finding that papillomavirus DNA is integrated into the cellular DNA of cervical carcinoma cells. This finding clarified how papillomavirus genes persist in the cancers, and also revealed that the cancers are clonal (see Aside 2, above). Moreover, while the integrated viral genomes often contain deletions, zur Hausen’s group found that two viral genes, E6 and E7, are present and transcribed in all cervical cancer cells. This finding implied that E6 and E7 play a role in initiating and maintaining the oncogenic state. [In 1990 Peter Howley and co-workers demonstrated that the interaction of the E6 gene product with the cellular tumor suppressor protein p53 results in the degradation of p53. In 1992 Ed Harlow and coworkers showed that the E7 gene product blocks the activity of the cellular tumor suppressor protein pRb. Reference 3 details the mechanisms of papillomavirus carcinogenesis.]
The above findings led to widespread acceptance that cervical carcinoma is caused by papillomaviruses. Yet acceptance was not immediate. The prevailing belief, that herpesviruses cause cervical carcinoma, was well-entrenched and slow to fade away. It was based on the observation that many women afflicted with cervical carcinoma also had a history of genital herpes. But, individuals infected with one sexually transmitted pathogen are often infected with others as well. Apropos that, genital warts were long thought to be associated with syphilis, and later with gonorrhea. In any case, in 1995 the World Health Organization officially accepted that HPV-16 and HPV-18 are oncogenic in humans.
Harald zur Hausen was awarded one half of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for proving that cervical cancer is caused by human papillomaviruses. By the time of his award, his findings had led to key insights into the mechanism of HPV-mediated carcinogenesis and, importantly, to the development of a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. See Aside 3.
[Aside 3: The first generation of Gardasil, made by Merck & Co., helped to prevent cervical cancer by immunizing against HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for an estimated 70% of cervical cancers. Moreover it also immunized against HPV types 6 and 11, which are responsible for an estimated 90% of genital warts cases. Apropos genital warts, there are 500,000 to one million new cases of genital warts (also known as condylomata acuminate) diagnosed each year in the United States alone.
The original vaccine was approved by the USFDA on June 8, 2006. An updated version of Gardasil, Gardasil 9, protects against the HPV strains covered by the first generation of the vaccine, as well as five additional HPV strains (HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58), which are responsible for another 20% of cervical cancers. Gardasil 9 was approved by the USFDA in December 2014.]
Harald zur Hausen reviewed the overall contribution of viruses to human cancer in his 2008 Nobel lecture (4). Some of his key points are as follows. HPVs were discussed above with respect to cervical carcinoma. HPVs also are associated with squamous cell carcinomas of the vagina, anus, vulva, and oropharynx. What’s more, 40% of the 26,300 cases of penile cancer reported worldwide in 2002 could be attributed to HPV infection.
Epstein-Barr virus too was discussed above. This member of the herpesvirus virus family causes nasopharyngeal carcinoma, as well as Burkitt’s lymphoma. Another herpesvirus, human herpesvirus 8, causes Kaposi’s sarcoma; the most frequent cancer affecting AIDS patients. Hepatitis B virus (HBV, a hepadnavirus), as well as hepatitis C virus (HCV, a flavivirus), causes hepatocellular carcinoma. The human T-lymphotropic virus 1 (HTLV-1), a retrovirus, induces adult T-cell leukemia. And the recently discovered Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) is responsible for Merkel cell carcinoma.
Harald zur Hausen estimated that viruses directly cause about 20% of all human cancers, and a similar percentage of all deaths due to cancer! And while 20% might seem to be a remarkably high figure for the extent of viral involvement in human cancer, zur Hausen suggests that it is actually a minimal estimate. That is so because it is difficult to determine that a particular virus is actually the cause of a cancer. Consequently, it is likely that other examples of viral involvement in human cancer will be discovered.
Harald zur Hausen gave two principal reasons for why it is difficult to establish that an infectious agent is the cause of a cancer in humans. First: “… no human cancer arises as the acute consequence of infection. The latency periods between primary infection and cancer development are frequently in the range of 15 to 40 years…” Second: “Most of the infections linked to human cancers are common in human populations; they are ubiquitous… Yet only a small proportion of infected individuals develops the respective cancer type.”
Viruses also contribute to the human cancer burden in an indirect way. For instance, HIV types 1 and 2 play an indirect role in cancer via their immunosuppressive effect, which is the reason for the extraordinarily high prevalence and aggressiveness of Kaposi’s sarcoma in AIDS patients.
Bacterial infections also contribute to the cancer burden. For example, Helicobacter pylori infections may lead to stomach cancer. What’s more, the parasites Schistosoma, Opisthorchis, and Clonorchis have been linked to rectum and bladder cancers in parts of Northern Africa and Southeast Asia, where they are prevalent.
Obviously, but important enough to state anyway, knowing that a particular cancer is caused by a particular infectious agent opens the possibility of developing a rational strategy to prevent that cancer. Gardasil is an exmple. A vaccine against HBV is also available, and one against HCV is under development.
1. Who discovered HIV, Posted on the blog January 23, 2014.
There is a cautionary note on the info sheet accompanying the influenza vaccine, which advises individuals who are allergic to eggs to speak with their doctors before receiving the vaccine. As most readers know, the reason for the warning is that the usual flu vaccine is grown in embryonated chicken eggs.
[Aside 1: The current trivalent influenza vaccine is prepared by inoculating separate batches of fertile chicken eggs; each with one of the three influenza strains (representing an H1N1, an H3N2, and a B strain) recommended by the WHO for the upcoming winter flu season. The monovalent viral yields are then combined to make the trivalent vaccine.]
But, why chicken eggs, and how did this state of affairs come to be? The backdrop to this tale is that until the third decade of the twentieth century, virologists were still searching for fruitful means to cultivate viruses outside of a live laboratory animal. This was so despite the fact that, as early as 1907, researchers had been developing procedures for maintaining viable tissues in culture. And, soon afterwards, virologists began to adapt tissue cultures as substrates for propagating viruses.
Yet as late as 1930, there were still only two antiviral vaccines—the smallpox vaccine developed by Edward Jenner in 1798 (1) and the rabies vaccine developed by Louis Pasteur in 1885. Bearing in mind that Jenner’s vaccine preceded the germ-theory of disease by a half century, and that Pasteur’s vaccine came 15 years before the actual discovery of viruses (as microbial agents that are distinct from bacteria), the development of these first two viral vaccines was fortunate indeed (2).
The principal factor holding up the development of new viral vaccines was that viruses, unlike bacteria, could not be propagated in pure culture. Instead, for reasons not yet understood, viruses could replicate only within a suitable host. And, notwithstanding early attempts to propagate viruses in tissue culture (reviewed below), developments had not yet reached a stage where that approach was fruitful enough to generate a vaccine. How then were Jenner and Pasteur able to produce their vaccines? See Aside 2 for the answers.
[Aside 2: Jenner, without any awareness of the existence of infectious microbes, obtained his initial inoculate by using a lance to pierce a cowpox postule on the wrist of a young milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes. Jenner then propagated the vaccine, while also transmitting immunity, by direct person-to-person transfer. (The rationale underlying Jenner’s vaccine, and his story, is told in detail in reference 1.)
Jenner’s live cowpox vaccine protected against smallpox because cowpox, which produces a relatively benign infection in humans, is immunologically cross-reactive with smallpox. Thus, inoculating humans with cowpox induces immunity that is active against cowpox and against smallpox as well. Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, while not entirely fortuitous, was still providential, since immunity per se, as well as microbes, were unknown in Jenner’s day.
Following a successful worldwide vaccination program, smallpox was officially declared to be eradicated in 1977. The smallpox vaccine currently stockpiled in the United States contains live vaccinia; a virus that is immunologically related to cowpox and smallpox. Like cowpox, vaccinia causes a mild infection in humans.
The existing smallpox vaccine was grown in the skin of calves. It is now more than 40 years old and has not been used for years, but it is still believed to be effective.
Pasteur (probably the greatest and most famous microbiologist) was a pioneer of the germ theory of disease. Yet he developed his rabies vaccine more than a decade before the discovery of viruses. He did so by applying the same principle that he used earlier to produce a vaccine against cholera. That is, he “attenuated” the rabies agent. He began with virus that was contained in an extract from a rabid dog. Pasteur attenuated the virus for humans by successively passing extracts in the spinal cords of live rabbits, and then aging the last extracts in the series. Modern rabies vaccines are generally killed virus vaccines, prepared by chemically inactivating tissue culture lysates.]
In the years following the pioneering 19th century contributions of Pasteur, Koch, and Lister, and with the widespread acceptance of the germ theory of disease, microbiologists (that is, bacteriologists) appreciated the importance of working with “pure cultures” that could be grown in a sterilized medium. Yet this was proving to be impossible in the case of viruses. Moreover, as late as the 1930s, it was not understood why that should be so
At the very least, virologists would have liked to be able to cultivate viruses outside of a living animal host. The possibility of achieving that goal began to emerge when Ross G. Harrison, working at Johns Hopkins in 1907, became the first researcher to maintain bits of viable tissue outside of an animal. Harrison maintained frog neuroblasts in hanging drops of lymph medium. What’s more, under those conditions, the neuroblasts gave rise to outgrowths of nerve fibers.
In 1913, Edna Steinhardt became the first researcher to cultivate (or at least maintain) a virus (cowpox) in a tissue culture. Steinhardt did this by infecting hanging-drop cultures with corneal extracts from the eyes of cowpox-infected rabbits and guinea pigs. However, there was no methodology at the time for Steinhardt to determine whether the virus might have replicated in her tissue cultures.
In 1912, Alexis Carrel, working at the Rockefeller Institute, began a two-decade-long experiment that significantly increased interest in tissue culture. Carrel maintained tissue fragments from an embryonic chicken heart in a closed flask, which he regularly supplied with fresh nutrients. Later, he claimed that he maintained the viability of the culture for more than 20 years; well beyond the normal lifespan of a chicken. See Aside 3.
[Aside 3: Carrel’s experimental results could never be reproduced. In fact, in the 1960s, Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead made the important discovery that differentiated cells can undergo only a limited number of divisions in culture before undergoing senescence and dying. It is not known how Carrel obtained his anomalous results. But, Carrel was an honored, if controversial scientist, having been awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for pioneering vascular suturing techniques. In the 1930s Carrel developed an intriguing and close friendship with Charles Lindbergh, which began when Lindbergh sought out Carrel to see if Carrel might help Lindbergh’s sister, whose heart was damaged by rheumatic fever. Carrel could not help Lindbergh’s sister, but Lindbergh helped Carrel build the first perfusion pump, which laid the groundwork for open heart surgery and organ transplants. Carrel and Lindbergh also co-authored a book, The Culture of Organs. In the 1930s, Carrel, promoted enforced eugenics. During the Second World War, Carrel, who was French by birth, helped the Vichy French government put eugenics policies into practice. Moreover, he praised the eugenics policies of the Third Reich, leading to inconclusive investigations into whether he collaborated with the Nazis. Carrel died in November, 1944.]
In 1925 Frederic Parker and Robert Nye, at the Boston City Hospital, provided the first conclusive evidence for viral growth in a tissue culture. The virus was a strain of herpes simplex, which Parker and Nye received in the form of an extract from Ernest Goodpasture; soon to be the major character in our story. Parker and Nye established their first culture from the brain of a rabbit that was inoculated intracerebrally with an extract from an infected rabbit brain. The animal was sacrificed when in a convulsive state, and its brain was then removed aseptically. Small pieces of normal rabbit testes were added to pieces of brain in the cultures, to provide another potential host cell for the virus. Virus multiplication was demonstrated by inoculating diluents of subculture extracts into laboratory animals. A 1:50,000 diluent was able to transmit the infection.
At this point in our chronology, the pathologist Ernest Goodpasture, and the husband-wife team of Alice and Eugene Woodruff, enters our story. Goodpasture’s principal interest was then, as always, in pathology. He became interested in viruses while he was serving as a Navy doctor during World War I. But his focus was on the pathology of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which he studied in the first sailors stricken by the infection (3). He was later interested in herpetic encephalitis, and in how rabies virus made its way to the central nervous system, but always from the perspective of a pathologist.
In 1927, Eugene Woodruff was a newly graduated physician who joined Goodpasture in the Pathology Department at Vanderbilt University for training as a pathologist. Eugene’s wife, Alice, a Ph.D., came to the Vanderbilt Pathology Department a year later, as a research fellow in Goodpasture’s laboratory.
Goodpasture set Eugene Woodruff to work on fowlpox; a relative of smallpox, which, unlike cowpox, can not infect humans. Goodpasture was interested in the cellular pathology of fowlpox infection; specifically, in the nature of the inclusion bodies seen in fowlpox-infected cells. Using a micropipette, Woodruff was able to pick single inclusion bodies from infected chicken cells, and to then determine that inclusion bodies are intracellular crystalline arrays of the virus.
More apropos to our story, in the late 1920s, virologists still could not generate large amounts of virus that were free of bacteria and contaminating tissue elements. For that reason, Goodpasture believed that future important advancements in virology would require the development of methods to grow large amounts of virus in pure culture; an impossible goal. In any case, Goodpasture delegated Alice Woodruff to develop a method for growing fowlpox outside of a live chicken.
Goodpasture had already adapted Carrel’s tissue culture methods, which he used to maintain chick kidney tissue in culture. So, Alice’s first experiments were attempts to get fowlpox to propagate in cultures of chick kidney tissue. However, the virus stubbornly declined to grow in the tissue cultures. Goodpasture then suggested to Alice that she try to grow the virus in embryonated chicken eggs. But why did Goodpasture make that suggestion?
The answer isn’t clear. But, back in 1910, Peyton Rous and colleague James Murphy, at the Rockefeller Institute, fruitfully made use of fertile chick eggs to cultivate a virus, as described in Aside 4. However, Rous’ accomplishments, which eventually would be recognized as huge, were largely ignored for the next 50 or so years. (The reasons are discussed in reference 4.) Goodpasture may well have been unaware of Rous’ earlier work when he suggested to Alice that she try to cultivate fowlpox in chicken eggs. If so, then his suggestion to Alice may have been an original idea on his part, perhaps inspired by his thinking of the chick embryo as a sterile substrate that is enclosed in a naturally sterile container. On the other hand, he and Alice did note the earlier work of Rous and Murphy in the 1931 report of their own work. (In that paper, they state: “The production of experimental infection in the chorio-allantoic membrane has, however, been done only in the one instance where Rous and Murphy grew the virus of the Rous sarcoma.”). In any case, the chick embryo method for growing viruses had lain dormant for twenty years.
[Aside 4: Rous and Murphy cut a small window into the shells of six-to-sixteen-day-old embryonated chicken eggs, and then placed a bit of a filtered, cell-free extract from a chicken sarcoma into each. By one week’s time there was a tumor mass growing in each of the inoculated embryos. These studies led to Rous’ 1911 report of a filterable, infectious agent, eventually named the Rous sarcoma virus, which causes sarcomas in chickens. The Rous sarcoma virus was the first virus known to cause solid tumors and, moreover, it was the prototype of a virus family that eventually would be known as the retroviruses (4).]
Alice Woodruff’s procedure for infecting the chicken eggs began with her making a small window in the egg shell, at the site of the air sac. (An egg cup served as the operating table, and the window was cut with a dentist’s drill.) She then inoculated the viral extract into the outermost layer of the chorio-allantoic membrane, which encloses the embryo and provides an air channel into its body. Alice then closed the window with a piece of glass, held in place with Vaseline.
Alice tried to maintain sterility at all stages of her procedure. Yet despite the elegance of her techniques, she had nothing to show for these efforts except dead embryos that were overgrown with mold or bacteria. She then turned to her husband, Eugene, who was working in a separate laboratory, down the hall from her lab.
Alice and Eugene, working together, developed procedures to sterilely remove fowlpox lesions from the heads of chicks. In brief, the chick heads were shaved and then bathed in alcohol. Then, the lesions were excised with sterile instruments. Next, the excised lesions were tested for bacterial or fungal contamination by incubating fragments in nutrient broth. If a lesion was sterile by that test, it was deemed fit to be inoculated into the eggs.
Eugene further contributed to the effort by applying a technique that he developed earlier; picking out individual inclusion bodies from fowlpox-infected cells. When he discovered that the inclusion bodies could be disrupted into individual virus particles by incubating them in trypsin, he was able to provide Alice with virtually pure virus that she could inoculate the eggs with.
As Greer Williams relates in Virus Hunters (5): “Then, one morning when she peeked into the window of an egg that had been incubating for about a week after she had infected it with the virus, she saw something different. This chick embryo was still alive…She removed the embryo from the shell and examined it. It had a swollen claw. ‘Could this be due to fowlpox infection?’…She went to Goodpasture and put the same question to him…”
In Alice’s own words, “I can’t forget the thrill of that moment when Dr. Goodpasture came into my lab, and we stood by the hood where the incubator was installed and I showed him this swollen claw from the inoculated embryo (5).”
The swollen claw indeed resulted from the fowlpox infection. This was shown by the fact that when bits of the swollen tissue were transferred to other embryos, they in turn induced more swollen tissue. Moreover, these swollen tissues contained fowlpox inclusion bodies. Additionally, when transferred to adult chickens, those bits of swollen tissue produced typical fowlpox lesions.
During the next year, Goodpasture, Alice Woodruff, and Gerritt Budding (a lab assistant, who dropped out of medical school to participate in the chick embryo work) reported that cowpox and herpes simplex viruses could also be grown in the embryonated chicken eggs.
Later studies by Goodpasture and Buddingh showed that each embryonated chicken egg could produce enough vaccinia to produce more than 1,000 doses of smallpox vaccine. They also showed, in a case-study involving 1,074 individuals, that the chick-grown smallpox vaccine works as well in humans as the vaccine produced by inoculating the skin of calves. Regardless, the chick vaccine never caught on to replace the long-established, but cruder calf-grown vaccine (see Aside 2).
Goodpasture placed Alice’s name ahead of his own on their report describing the propagation of fowlpox in chicken eggs. Alice says that Goodpasture was “over-generous” in that regard. Howevever, much of the day-to-day lab work resulted from her initiatives. Eugene’s name also came before Goodpasture’s on the report describing the inclusion body study.
Shortly after completing these studies, Alice left research to raise a family. Eugene’s name also disappeared from the virus literature. But in his case that was because his interests turned to tuberculosis.
In 1932, soon after the above breakthroughs in Godpasture’s laboratory, Max Theiler and Eugen Haagen developed their yellow fever vaccine (6), which initially was generated in embryo tissue from mice and chickens. But, starting in 1937, production of the yellow fever vaccine was switched to the embryonated egg method, in part, to “cure” the live yellow fever vaccine of its neurotropic tendencies.
Recall our introductory comments regarding the warning that individuals allergic to eggs should get medical advice before receiving the standard flu vaccine. In 1941, Thomas Francis, at the University of Michigan, used embryonated chicken eggs to produce the first influenza vaccine (see Asides 5 and 6). Remarkably, even today, in the era of recombinant DNA and proteomics, this seemingly quaint procedure is still the preferred means for producing the standard trivalent flu vaccine (see Aside 1).
[Aside 5: Thomas Francis produced his 1941influenza vaccine in response to urging by U.S. Armed Forces Epidemiological Board. With the Second World War underway in Europe and Asia, and with the 1918 influenza pandemic in mind, there was fear that if an influenza epidemic were to emerge during the upcoming winter, it might impede the military training that might be necessary. An epidemic did not materialize that winter, but the vaccine was ready, and we were at war.]
[Aside 6: Thomas Francis was one of the great pioneers of medical virology. The same year that he developed his flu vaccine, Jonas Salk (recently graduated from NYU medical school) came to his laboratory for postgraduate studies. Francis taught Salk his methodology for vaccine development, which ultimately enabled Salk to develop his polio vaccine (7).]
Next, Hillary Koprowski developed a safer, less painful and more effective rabies vaccine that is grown in duck eggs, and that is still widely used. Why duck eggs? The reason is that duck eggs require four weeks to hatch, instead of the three weeks required by chicken eggs. So, duck eggs give the slow-growing rabies virus more time to replicate.
By any measure, the procedures for growing viruses in embryonated chicken eggs, developed by Ernest Goodpasture and Alice Woodruff, were a major step forward in vaccine development. Sir Macfarlane Burnet (a Nobel laureate for his work on immunological tolerance) commented 25 years later, “Nearly all the later practical advances in the control of viral diseases of man and animals sprang from this single discovery.”
Addendum 1: Several major advances in cell and tissue culture (the other means for growing viruses outside of an animal) happened after Woodruff and Goopasture reported the development of their embryonated egg method in 1931. For the sake of completeness, several of these are noted.
In 1933, George Gey, at Johns Hopkins, developed the roller tube technique, in which the tissue is placed in a bottle that is laid on its side and continuously rotated around its cylindrical axis. In that way, the media continually circulates around the tissue. Compared to the older process of growing tissues in suspension, the roller culture method allowed the prolonged maintenance of the tissues in an active state and, consequently, the growth of large amounts of virus. The roller tube technique also works very well for cell cultures that attach to the sides of the bottle. [Incidentally, Gey is probably best known for having established the HeLa line of human carcinoma cells from cancer patient, Henrietta Lacks. HeLa cells comprise the first known human immortal cell line and they have served as one of the most important tools for medical research. (See The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, 2010.)]
In 1948, John Enders, and colleagues Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins, used Gey’s methods, to demonstrate for the first time that poliovirus could be grown in non-nervous tissue. This was significant because the potential hazard of injecting humans with nervous tissue was holding up the development of a polio vaccine.
Next, Renato Dulbecco and Marguerite Vogt, working at Caltech, developed procedures to grow large amounts poliovirus in cell culture, adding to the feasibility of an eventual polio vaccine (8). Additionally, Dulbecco and Vogt developed a plaque assay procedure to measure the titer of animal viruses grown in cell culture (7).
Addendum 2: The following excerpt tells of the chance encounter that led Howard Temin to become a virologist (4). Temin was the Nobel laureate who first proposed the retroviral strategy of replication, and who co-discovered reverse transcriptase.
“Howard Temin began working on Rous sarcoma virus in the 1950s, while a graduate student in Renato Dulbecco’s laboratory at Caltech (see reference 7 for more on Dulbecco). However, he worked under the direct supervision of Harry Rubin, an early star in the field, who was, at the time, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dulbecco lab. Nothing was known as yet about the replication of the RNA tumor viruses, as the retroviruses were then known. Moreover, little more was known about the molecular basis of cancer in the 1950s than was known in 1911, when Rous first isolated his virus; a state of affairs that would be much alleviated by future studies of the oncogenic retroviruses.
Rubin was a veterinarian by training, perhaps accounting for his somewhat unique appreciation of an oncogenic virus of chickens, well after even Rous himself had lost interest. And, Rubin was responsible for introducing other young investigators to the RNA tumor virus field, both at Caltech and later at UC Berkely.
Rubin’s mentorship of Temin began somewhat fortuitously, as follows. When they first met, Temin was actually doing his graduate research in another laboratory at Caltech, looking into the embryology of the innkeeper worm, Urechis caupo. But he was also serving as a laboratory assistant in the Caltech general biology course. In that capacity, he was dispatched to Dulbecco’s laboratory to obtain some fertilized chicken eggs for use in the general biology lab. Harry Rubin supplied the chicken eggs. But the chance visit from Temin gave Rubin the opportunity to tell Temin about the chicken sarcoma viruses that were being studied in the Dulbecco laboratory.
Rubin had just recently found that he could induce the neoplastic transformation of a normal chicken cell with a single Rous sarcoma virus particle. He then demonstrated that the transformed cell produced hundreds more transformed daughter cells in a week’s time. During their chance conversation, Rubin suggested to Temin that he (Temin) might make use of that observation to develop a quantitative tissue culture assay for Rous sarcoma virus. Sufficiently intrigued by Rubin’s proposition, Temin switched from embryology to virology and proceeded to develop a focus-forming cell culture assay for Rous sarcoma virus; an assay analogous in principle to a plaque assay. But instead of forming plaques of dead cells, the non-cytocidal Rous sarcoma virus induces the growth of visible foci of morphologically transformed neoplastic cells.”
[Addendum 3: Today, viruses are usually cultivated in readily available continuous cell lines. That said, when I first entered the field in 1970, as a postdoctoral studying the murine polyomavirus, my first task of the week was to prepare the baby-mouse-kidney and mouse-embryo primary cell cultures, which at that time served as the cellular host for that virus. This rather unpleasant chore was a reason I eventually turned to SV40, since I could grow that virus in continuous lines of monkey kidney cells.
1. Edward Jenner and the Smallpox Vaccine, posted on the blog September 16, 2014.
2. Leonard C. Norkin, Virology: Molecular Biology and Pathogenesis, ASM Press, 2010. Chapter 1 tells how viruses were discovered and how their distinctive nature was brought to light.
3. Opening Pandora’s Box: Resurrecting the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus andTransmissible H5N1 Bird Flu, posted on the blog April 15, 2014.
4. Howard Temin: “In from the Cold,” posted on the blog December 14, 2013.
5. Greer Williams, Virus Hunters, Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.
6. The Struggle Against Yellow Fever: Featuring Walter Reed and Max Theiler, posted on the blog May 12, 2014.
7. Renato Dulbecco and the Beginnings of Quantitative Animal Virology, posted on the blog December 3, 2013.
8. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, posted on the blog March 27, 2014.