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Zil’ber, Lev Aleksandrovich

(1894–1966), immunologist, virologist, and cancer researcher. Lev Aleksandrovich (Abelevich) Zil’ber was born in Novgorod province to the family of a military musician. He spent his childhood and youth in Pskov (northwest Russia). In 1912, he entered the natural science department of Saint Petersburg University, transferring three years later to the medical faculty of Moscow University, from which he graduated in 1919.

After serving as a physician in the Red Army (1919–1921), Zil’ber worked with the eminent Russian immunologist Vladimir Barykin, director of the Moscow Institute of Microbiology (1921–1928). In 1929 and 1930, Zil’ber directed the Institute of Microbiology and headed its microbiology department in Baku; he was instrumental in eliminating an outbreak of plague in Azerbaijan.

In 1930, Zil’ber moved to Moscow, where in 1935 he organized the USSR’s first research virology laboratory. He led an expedition in 1937 to the Far Eastern taiga and discovered an encephalitis virus and the tick that carried it. Soon after this expedition, Zil’ber was arrested and treated brutally. His name was removed from publication about the virus discovery. He was released in 1939 but arrested again in 1940, spending time in prisons and camps. He worked in a camp infirmary, saving hundreds of lives by giving patients yeast cultivated from reindeer moss. In a prison’s chemical laboratory, Zil’ber, an adherent of the viral theory of the origin of tumors, set about trying to induce tumors by means of cell-free filtrates.

In 1944, Zil’ber was finally released, thanks to the efforts of leading Soviet scientists, and organized the virology department at the Moscow Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, where he worked until the end of his life. He wrote two monographs, Virusnaia teoriia proiskhozhdeniia zlokachestvennykh opukholei (The Viral Theory of the Origin of Malignant Tumors; 1946) and Epidemicheskie entsefality (Epidemic Encephalites; 1946). The latter was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest Soviet award.

In 1945, Zil’ber was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences. In 1948, he began basic work on the immunology of cancer, developing tests for anaphylaxis and desensitization that clearly revealed the antigenic differences between tumorous and normal tissue. In 1962, the biochemical group in Zil’ber’s laboratory discovered alpha-fetoprotein production by liver tumors, the first fetal antigen associated with tumor growth, thus marking the beginning of immunodiagnostics as a method for detection tumors occurring in animals and humans.

From the mid-1940s, Zil’ber developed the viral-genetic theory of the origin of tumors, according to which the virus changes cellular genome and then is not necessary for tumor development. Later he postulated the integration of a virus with the genome of a cell and suggested that it is a critical event in the induction of tumors. He demonstrated in 1957 that chicken Rous virus induced the tumors in mammals. This system became, in further studies in Czechoslovakia, one of the first to show integration of viral genes into cellular genomes.

Zil’ber was a member of the London Royal Medical Society and an honorary member of the New York Academy of Sciences. The Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences awarded him its medal Za Zásluhy o Vědu a Lidstvo (For Services to Science and Humanity).

Suggested Reading

Lev Aleksandrovich Zil’ber and G. I. Abelev, The Virology and Immunology of Cancer, trans. Ruth Schachter (Oxford and New York, 1968); Lev Aleksandrovich Zil’ber, Izbrannye trudy, ed. N. N. Blokhin (Moscow, 1971).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson