By Tom Geisbert, for the Houston Chronicle, Gray Matters
Tom Geisbert, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, studies viruses, such as Ebola, that require Biosafety Level 4 containment. His first encounter with Ebola came in 1989, when tissue samples from monkeys thought to have been infected with the relatively benign simian hemorrhagic fever virus were brought to an Army facility for analysis — an episode made famous in 1994 by Richard Preston's book "The Hot Zone." Geisbert's electron microscope images gave the first hint that the monkeys had actually contracted a strain of Ebola.
In 1989, I was 27 years old and was working as a research microbiologist at the United States Army Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. To study highly pathogenic viral hemorrhagic fevers, we had been working with a virus called simian hemorrhagic fever (SHF). SHF causes disease in macaque monkeys that is very similar to Ebola in humans, but SHF does not cause disease in humans.
My mentor, Dr. Peter Jahrling, had given a talk at a scientific meeting on our work with SHF, and by chance a veterinarian from a Reston, Va., primate-quarantine facility was in the audience. Several months after the talk this veterinarian noticed that cynomolgus monkeys that had been imported from the Philippines were dying of a disease that had clinical signs consistent with SHF. He called Dr. Jahrling, and we agreed to test the samples.
SHF was not a biosafety level 4 virus. We performed tests in our Biosafety Level 3 lab to determine whether the virus was SHF or not. When we put samples from the cynomolgus monkeys onto cell culture, the cells began to die. We were not sure whether this was due to SHF or to a bacterial contaminant.
I had been doing a lot of electron microscopy, viewing viruses at a very high magnification to study their structure and their biology. We decided to look at the cell cultures from the Reston facility samples with the electron microscope. To my great surprise, when I looked at the samples I did not see small spherical virus particles consistent with SHF. Instead I saw long filamentous virus particles that were spaghetti-shaped and cells with virus inclusions that looked like either Ebola virus or Marburg virus. I took pictures of this virus and took them to Dr. Jahrling. He thought I was joking.
When I convinced him that I was not joking, he called in Dr. C.J. Peters, who was his boss. I am not sure whether he was joking or not, but Dr. Peters threatened to fire me if this was some sort of joke. Later that day we confirmed that the virus responsible for the outbreak was Ebola.
The Ebola-Reston virus, while highly lethal in nonhuman primates, is not thought to be pathogenic in humans. But no one wants to be the test case. The Reston facility was depopulated and eventually torn down.
That incident was the basis of "The Hot Zone," Richard Preston's nonfiction book. One of the book's main strengths is Preston's ability to explain science -- and virology in particular -- in layman's terms, and to present the story in a way that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
"The Hot Zone" has been required reading material in many high school and college science classes. To this day, after I give talks, people come up to me and say they remember that I co-discovered the Ebola-Reston virus. But more importantly, I have had numerous people -- including my own staff -- who have told me that this book changed their lives, and steered them toward the careers they have today.