50 years ago, scientists found a virus lurking in human cancer cells

Excerpt from the July 10, 1971 issue of Science News

Epstein-Barr virus

Epstein-Barr virus was the first virus linked to human cancers more than 50 years ago. Scientists have since discovered other cancer-causing viruses and have developed vaccines for several, but not for Epstein-Barr.

National Cancer Institute

July 10, 1971 cover

A virus from human cancer Science News, July 10, 1971

[Researchers] cultured and isolated the … virus from tissue of a child patient with Burkitt’s lymphoma — cancer of the lymph nodes.… [The] work reinforces the growing body of evidence that human cancers are linked with, or caused by, a virus or viruses.… And it once again raises the possibility of a cancer vaccine.


Scientists estimate that a handful of viruses cause around 12 to 20 percent of human cancers. Vaccines are now available for hepatitis B virus, which can cause liver cancer, and human papillomavirus, responsible for most cervical cancers. But a vaccine for the first virus ever linked to cancer has eluded scientists. Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, infects about 90 percent of people and can cause Burkitt’s lymphoma and other cancers in a small fraction of those infected. Developing a vaccine has been a challenge partly because EBV can hide in the body for decades before causing problems. Several vaccine candidates are being tested in people, including one nanoparticle-based vaccine that may trigger a potent immune response.

Jonathan Lambert is a former staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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