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Cancer virus discovery helped by delayed flight

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Bad weather and a delayed flight might be a recipe for misery - but in one instance 50 years ago it led to a discovery that has saved countless thousands of lives.

The discovery of the Epstein Barr virus - named after British doctor Anthony Epstein - resulted from his specialist knowledge of viruses which caused tumours in chickens plus his skills gained using one of the first commercially-available electron microscopes.

His hunch was assisted by a longer than expected journey of some tumour cells from Uganda, which were nearly thrown in the bin.

But it would never have happened if Epstein's curiosity hadn't been fired up by a lecture by the Irish doctor turned "bush surgeon", Denis Burkitt.

In the lecture, billed as a staff meeting on "The Commonest Children's Cancer in Tropical Africa", Burkitt described how he had noticed a number of cases of debilitating tumours which grew around the jawbone of children in specific regions - particularly those with high temperatures and high rainfall.

We now know this as Burkitt lymphoma.

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