More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Scientist on the leading edge of biology links microbes with mysterious diseases

Sunday, September 30, 2001
By Jeff Gottlieb

IRVINE, Calif. - Ian Lipkin pulls a printout from an Internet site where doctors around the world report on infections that have them mystified.

"These things come out all day long," said Lipkin, head of the Emerging Diseases Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. "No one has any idea how to deal with [them]."

Lipkin, who founded the lab at UC Irvine in 1990, is an explorer who, along with other researchers, hunts for unidentified microbes, trying to figure out which illnesses are caused by which viruses.

It was Lipkin who, in 1999, identified West Nile virus, previously unknown in the United States, as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak that killed seven people in the New York City area.

The discovery catapulted the UC Irvine physician and professor of neurobiology into the scientific spotlight and sent him to Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and across the United States, attending conferences and collaborating with other researchers.

The West Nile discovery was the kind of research Lipkin thrives on, delving into the mysterious world of disease and turning up a cause.

Working at the frontier of molecular biology, he seeks microbes he believes are responsible for a number of chronic diseases, including multiple sclerosis, autism, Alzheimer's and depression.

But in his Irvine office, a weathered leather doctor's bag sits on a bookshelf and cardboard boxes are stacked in the corner, boxes he is packing to move to Columbia University. There, he will join the faculty of the Mailman School of Public Health, drawn by the more extensive facilities the Ivy League school can offer and the closeness of premier researchers in New York.

"He's a star," said Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School. "His work on West Nile is just one indication of the high caliber of work he's engaged in."

Lipkin is an attractive recruit for any university. At 48, he has a reputation for cutting-edge research. He is a compulsive worker, who often toils through the weekends.

"He calls me up at all hours of the day and night, and is extremely dedicated to his subject," said David Relman, a friend and professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Stanford University.

Lipkin grew up in Chicago, the son of a psychiatrist. He received his bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, becoming one of the first men to spend four years at what had been a women's school.

When Lipkin entered Sarah Lawrence, he was interested in mythology, philosophy and cultural anthropology and curious about other parts of the world. But his organic chemistry professor made the subject come so alive that Lipkin turned to science.

Still, at that time, Sarah Lawrence's only degree was a bachelor's in liberal arts.

When the 1974 graduate delivered the commencement speech to Sarah Lawrence's Class of 2000, he told them, "Many of the concepts I now use daily in molecular biology and neuroscience are rooted in lessons learned" from his liberal arts studies.

He received his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago.

While he was a neurology resident at UC San Francisco in the early 1980s, two things set the stage for his career in what he calls "pathogen discovery." The first was the emergence of patients diagnosed with the then-mysterious disease AIDS.

The second, he told the Sarah Lawrence students, was the discovery of the prion, an infectious molecule in the membranes of cells that is neither a bacterium nor a virus. Prions are thought to spread mad cow disease.

Lipkin said he was inspired by the discoverer of prions, Stanley Prusiner, a professor at UC San Francisco, who "pursued an iconoclastic hypothesis in the face of public ridicule."

Prusiner received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1997.

Lipkin got involved in the search for a disease that was killing people in New York when state officials sent him brain samples of four who had died.

West Nile had caused encephalitis in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but until 1999, had not been identified in the United States.

Most people infected with the virus suffer flulike symptoms and recover. But the very young, the elderly and those with damaged immune systems may be threatened.

By studying the genetic sequencing of the virus, Lipkin identified West Nile as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak.

He and his team then developed a simple test to detect West Nile in a small sample of spinal fluid in just five hours. Results from a previous test took three to four days.

Lipkin and his team won national attention, and their main work was showcased: taking tissue and using techniques of molecular biology to search for unknown viruses and bacteria, and determining which diseases are caused by known microbes.

"When people can't figure out what's going on, they get in touch with us," Lipkin said.

He calls it the Pandora's Box Program.

"Our hypothesis is we will discover new agents by this approach," Lipkin said. "Until you know something exists, how can you implicate it in a disease?"

For example, the causes of about 70 percent of encephalitis cases, an infection of the brain, are unknown, "probably because it's being caused by viruses we don't know about," Lipkin said.