Most scientists would probably consider it quite an accomplishment to have discovered one new virus over the course of their careers.
Dr. W. Ian Lipkin has found at least 400. In the past decade.
It’s little wonder that this Columbia University professor has become the world’s go-to guy for doctors and public health officials who want to know if a hidden virus is the cause of mysterious disease outbreaks in animals and humans.
From his home base at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health, Lipkin directs a team of 65 scientists who work around the clock analyzing some of the most dangerous pathogens on the planet.
At times, they’re working with something we’ve seen before, like a flu virus or a strain of Ebola. But sometimes the cases in Lipkin’s lab involve a puzzling, new and unknown enemy.
“There’s nothing that compares with discovery,” says Lipkin. “Not just my own discovery, but also the kids who work with you that are just getting started that find something themselves for the first time. Then they get the bug, and they realize that you’ll have an impact far beyond anything you can achieve during the course of your own work, or even your own lifetime.”
Lipkin got the bug for virus hunting early in his medical career. He was doing his second residency in neurology at the University of California at San Francisco.
The nameless scourge that would be called HIV/AIDS was just emerging. Lipkin and his colleagues chased down all kinds of leads to determine why their patients were so monstrously ill.
“It took such a long time to figure out why people were getting sick,” Lipkin says. “I decided I was going to devote myself to finding ways to understand how viruses cause disease, and identify them more rapidly.”
Lipkin earned his stripes as a virus hunter in the mid-1980s after reading an article in Science about an unknown pathogen that could cause bipolar disease, an affliction that was first identified in the 18th century.
Working on his own time, and with his own funds, Lipkin pioneered the use of a practice known as subtractive cloning to track down the culprit. In 1990 he told the world he had found the source: the Borna virus. Lipkin was the first person to ever identify an infectious agent using purely molecular tools.
It began a series of firsts for Lipkin.
In 1999, doctors in the New York area were puzzling over several cases of encephalitis. Lipkin, then working at the University of California at Irvine, made a startling discovery: The patients had been sickened by West Nile virus, the first time it had ever been identified in the Western Hemisphere.
Four years later, at the height of the SARS outbreak, as Chinese authorities scrambled to control the epidemic, Lipkin was hastily invited to Beijing to advise the government on containing and controlling the outbreak. His lab had developed a test for SARS, and tens of thousands of the kits were used to identify new cases.
More recently, Lipkin’s lab has helped debunk the belief that a link exists between the measles vaccine and autism, identified a virus wasting salmon farms, and found that a mystery virus sickening dogs was, surprisingly, a relative of hepatitis C.
More ominously, in 2009 his team found a new Ebola-like agent called Lujo, which has a nightmarishly high 80 percent death rate.
For Lipkin, the scariest part of his work isn’t that some mystery plague might infect him as he goes about his research. Rather, he worries about ensuring enough young scientists will be trained to continue work that is vital to protecting the health and welfare of people around the world.
“What keeps me up these days is making sure that we can keep everything going. These are very difficult times for science,” Lipkin says. “We have to intrigue young people, get them involved in it, and make sure that they take the courses and do the hard work that’s required to excel in this field.”