A life on the front lines against deadly viruses
By Faye Flam
Inquirer Staff Writer
Frederick Murphy remembers the day in 1967 that live viruses arrived at his veterinary research lab from Marburg, West Germany. Seven people were already dead from an unknown monkey disease that had jumped to humans, causing them to bleed uncontrollably. He was not afraid. As part of a small government team in Atlanta, it was his job to investigate such outbreaks.
"It was pure adventure," Murphy said, to be out on the front lines identifying deadly microbes - first Marburg, later Ebola - that were entirely new to humans.
Today, Murphy will be in Philadelphia to receive the $100,000 Penn Vet World Leadership Award, the biggest cash prize for veterinary research. His animal studies years ago laid the groundwork for understanding many of the latest emerging human diseases.
"When these viruses first came on the scene, it required an incredible amount of medical detective work," said Gary Nabel, head of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. And the stakes are always raised, he said, when you are dealing with a terrifyingly deadly germ.
Murphy, 74 and now a full professor at the University of Texas, Galveston, said he saw his life as a series of lucky breaks - and not just because he never contracted Marburg or Ebola.
He was hired at just 25 to head the viral-pathology branch at the Centers for Disease Control. He moved up the ranks, becoming the first veterinarian in a position of leadership at the CDC.
To this day, Murphy says he doesn't know why he was chosen. "I was an obscure veterinary grad student," he said in a phone interview Friday from Galveston.
He did, however, have experience diagnosing rabies in the Army Veterinary Corps. So he knew a thing or two about dealing with deadly viruses. This experience served him well a few years later, when he was called upon to investigate the horrific outbreak in Germany.
A mystery germ had apparently jumped from monkeys to workers at a vaccine research lab in Marburg. The disease - a type of hemorrhagic fever - started with intense bleeding of the nose and gums and, in the worst cases, progressed to bleeding out of every orifice as the virus attacked the lining of blood vessels, killing its host.
German researchers isolated the virus and sent it to Murphy and a handful of colleagues at the CDC.
Today's sophisticated containment facilities did not exist then, so the group borrowed a mobile laboratory that someone had built on the back of an 18-wheeler.
"I don't remember being frightened," he said. "A lot of biosafety has to do with being careful - using safe practices." Yet these were viruses no one had seen before.
The team grew the viruses in animal cells and examined them using what was then a new technology - the electron microscope.
What he saw "was absolutely new and really weird," Murphy said. Marburg was not round, like other virus particles, but long and thin like spaghetti.
After Marburg, permanent containment buildings started to go up at the CDC. Those proved crucial in 1976, when another mysterious outbreak hit near the Ebola River in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This one was even more frightening, killing nearly everyone who was infected after horrible bleeding.
When the first samples of the new virus arrived, a colleague of Murphy's opened the plastic-foam packaging and discovered that the tubes containing infected human tissue had broken. Team members simply donned double rubber gloves to extract live virus from the surrounding cotton. Then they grew it in cells, eventually identifying it as another new virus.
In 1989, Murphy got a call from a U.S. Army general, he said, telling him there was an outbreak of Ebola among monkeys at a research facility in Virginia. That heart-stopping incident, recounted in the best-seller The Hot Zone, never killed anyone because the strain of Ebola was not lethal to humans. But others still are.
Ebola and Marburg are zoonotic diseases - pathogens that can jump to humans from other animals. To persist, most zoonotic germs are carried by a host animal that can tolerate infection. Murphy and other scientists say they think bats are the carriers for Ebola.
Edward Pearce, director of infectious-disease research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said Murphy helped the scientific world understand the importance of zoonotic diseases.
"This is tremendously important since most new diseases - including avian influenza - emerge out of animal reservoirs," Pearce said.
"This is really a key area in which veterinary medicine can contribute to human health as well as the health of animals."
Murphy did critical work in classifying viruses and helping other scientists understand how they infect humans, said Alan Kelly, dean emeritus of the Penn vet school. He also lobbied hard a decade ago to discourage the use of animal organs for human transplants.
"With all his knowledge of virology, he knew it was a terrible idea," Kelly said.
Nabel, at the NIH, said there was more important work to be done. Ebola and Marburg have been weaponized, he said, so the next crisis could be man-made. There is an experimental vaccine against Marburg that has worked in animals, he said, and might work in people. He would like to see more research on a cure as well.
That may be for the next generation, and Murphy might be part of the inspiration. The importance of his work, Pearce said, "says something about the role of veterinarians in society."