Stopping the Next Plague

Hunting for viruses with Columbia's Simon Anthony

Stopping the Next Plague
Christopher Farber

Simon Anthony thumbs his iPhone while standing in line at a busy deli near Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights. While waiting to pay for his meatballs and french fries, an e-mail from a radiology lab pinged his inbox: the results from samples of monkey blood serum that he'd had analyzed for an enzyme that betrays the presence of retroviruses similar to HIV.

"Oh, this is interesting," he says without lifting his eyes.

He's searching for zoonotic viruses, the sort that are capable of jumping from animals to humans, which is his specialty. He is a key researcher in the largest-ever virus hunt, a global $75 million project, funded largely by the United States Agency for International Development. Called PREDICT, its aim is to identify "the next HIV" before it breaks out.

Christopher Farber
More than 500 novel viruses have been discovered in Columbia University’s labs. The lab receives samples—about 10,000 annually—of blood, tissue, and feces that arrive by mail every three months.
Christopher Farber
More than 500 novel viruses have been discovered in Columbia University’s labs. The lab receives samples—about 10,000 annually—of blood, tissue, and feces that arrive by mail every three months.

In just a couple of years, the 31-year-old has discovered 130 novel viruses. Now, the e-mail on his phone suggests that he will be adding one more.

He is tall and slender, with light brown hair that forms a small wave. In his London accent, he draws out vowels, particularly when he says viiiruses. He is a trained opera singer who practices tap dance and the waltz during otherwise wasted minutes of laboratory life, like waiting for a centrifuge to stop spinning. In and out of the lab, he wears V-neck sweaters, skinny jeans, and stubble, an unassuming uniform for someone who spies on nature's conspiracies to unleash a plague on New York.

Every year, he sifts through 5,000 samples of blood and tissue, many from wild animals in disease hot spots around the world. But he chases down threats close to home, too. Already this year, through molecular detective work, he has uncovered two important finds in New York and the region: specimens related to HIV in bush meat smuggled into John F. Kennedy International Airport and a deadly avian flu that leaped into seals in New England—evidence that it might spread into humans.

Rather than wait for pandemics to occur, scientists like Anthony try to stay one step ahead. This approach, called "biological intelligence," or "surveillance," is similar to how the CIA keeps tabs on foreign governments.

Surveillance is the first step in the modern approach to combating infectious diseases, which have skyrocketed over the past century and kill more people worldwide than cancer. Scientists believe this method is crucial, considering that, like HIV and SARS, three-quarters of new illnesses come from wild creatures.

But Anthony's goal is not simply prediction, but to understand the natural balance of pathogens and what throws it out of whack. Little is known about the universe of viruses, like how and why they hopscotch among species or how many exist. By charting it, Anthony hopes to better understand the dangers they pose, to learn how to prevent transmission, and to create necessary therapeutics.

And his contribution has been remarkable. His discoveries represent about 7 percent of viruses known to science. Although no official count exists, Stephen S. Morse, former director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness, believes the young scientist holds a unique distinction. "I don't think anyone else can make the claim to have found so many new viruses," says Morse, who is the director of PREDICT.

And today, it looks like Anthony is close to another quarry. There is evidence of retroviruses in the monkey serum he had tested. The image on Anthony's iPhone is of X-ray film containing a matrix of dots. Eight of 10 are opaque, a sign that there are traces of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, a substance retroviruses hijack cells with. He decides to delay other tests, of throat swabs taken from sick gorillas, to pursue the lead. "Maybe I'll just bump everything on my to-do list," he says. "Scientific intrigue trumps everything else."

After lunch, hot on the trail, Anthony hustles to the Center for Infection and Immunity, part of Columbia University, where he is a postdoctoral fellow. The lab occupies the top three floors of a tower on West 168th Street. It has wood floors, glass-walled offices, and large windows framing the George Washington Bridge. Hovering over countertops crammed with tubes and pipettes, more than 60 researchers work at the center. The place hums with the sound of oversize freezers cooling samples—thousands of plastic vials holding the DNA of viruses.

It is one of a half-dozen labs dedicated to pathogen discovery, the science of finding harmful microorganisms, and is one of the best virus-hunting machines on earth: More than 500 novel agents have been discovered there, more than at any other lab. Its scientists have been instrumental in spurring the use of molecular techniques to look for DNA, a widely imitated advancement that allows scientists to find viruses in a matter of days. Until just five years ago, it took years.

Viruses have no cells of their own; they break into a host cell and reproduce, often killing the host. Likened to lunar modules for their shapes, they are one-hundredth the size of bacteria and are not, strictly speaking, alive.

Anthony is searching one serum for retrovirus DNA. He sets up a test called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique used in forensic DNA fingerprinting. PCR copies genes many times, so they are easier to detect. He outfits himself with the weapons of a virus hunter: latex gloves, disposable fabric sleeves, pipettes. And an occasional silly joke: Another researcher who works nearby suggests they write a song describing PCR and post it on YouTube. "It'll go viral," she says. Then, with a look of concentration, he injects monkey serum samples—transparent liquid in clear tubes—into new vials filled with a liquid that will bind to retrovirus DNA.

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