A disease detective hunts pathogens with a photographic memory — and a genius mind
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ATLANTA — Dr. Sherif Zaki has striking eyes — wide as a young child’s and the palest of greens.

They are also singularly skilled. Zaki’s eyes — and the mind to which they report — have solved a slew of modern medical mysteries.

They have found Zika virus in the brains of Brazilian babies who died after birth. They have spotted anthrax in skin tissue after the substance was found in envelopes after the Sept. 11 attacks. And they have identified a bacterial disease known as leptospirosis in Nicaragua when no one else could.

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That last catch was made because Zaki — the chief pathologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — had seen the infection for the first time when he was in Brazil six months beforehand.

That’s another thing you should know about Sherif Zaki. Those exceptional eyes help feed a photographic memory — handy tools for a man in his trade.

Zaki, is, in effect, the CDC’s equivalent of TV’s Dr. House. But instead of poking around apartments looking for the causes of mysterious illnesses, Zaki scours human tissues for clues. He and his team pore over slides of preserved and stained tissues, studying patterns of damage while hunting for the minuscule culprits that might be causing it.

They also deal with the worst people-killers known to humankind — think Ebola, rabies, Rift Valley fever.

The study of high-consequence pathogens is a field renowned for larger-than-life characters. These are virus hunters, scientists who often don biohazard suits and conduct autopsies on people who’ve died from new and unidentified diseases — a rather risky venture.

Among these specialists, the 60-year-old Zaki is revered. He’s also unique.

“I think he’s a national treasure; he’s absolutely the best of his kind,” said Fred Murphy, a former boss at the CDC. (If you don’t recognize Murphy’s name you may know his work; he took the first images ever of an Ebola virus.)

Dr. Sherif Zaki

Raymond McCrea Jones for STAT

Zaki (middle left) works in a lab with other pathologists at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta.

A native of Alexandria, Egypt, Zaki is a generous teacher and mentor of younger scientists, friends and former colleagues say. He’s also self-effacing.

Recounting his accomplishments makes Zaki visibly uncomfortable. A soft speaker, he frequently turns the talk to his colleagues in the CDC’s infectious disease pathology branch. “There’s a big team,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “There are always big teams.”

That tendency meshes with the picture former colleagues paint of him.

“He … certainly doesn’t toot his own horn,” said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who has worked with many of these legends, previously at the CDC and now at Galveston. “But he’s also among the best and most respected, really, globally.”

It wasn’t always clear it would be that way. In Egypt, when Zaki was growing up, medical school began straight out of high school. He was, by his own account, not enthralled for the first couple of years. That changed when he started studying pathology. “And I really got hooked on it. … I really loved it,” he recalled.

That passion didn’t wane. He finished second overall in his class of roughly 800 students, placing first in surgery. The expectation was that he’d continue training to become a surgeon. But that’s not where his heart was.

“Even my mom told me: ‘Why don’t you be a real doctor?’” Zaki said. One night she went into his room when he was studying surrounded by pathology textbooks. She knew then the case was hopeless, she told him later.

What was the appeal? It might harken back to his early love of mystery — as a child, he devoured the novels of British author Enid Blyton. “We go into the basic of how a disease happens, the mechanism. Putting pieces together. Solving puzzles. Looking at the unknown and trying to figure out what it is,” he explained.

But pathology wasn’t an easy path to take in Egypt, where autopsies are not conducted for religious reasons. After graduation, he decided to go to Emory University in Atlanta to do a residency in pathology and to study for a PhD. While there, he was recruited by the CDC — literally next door — to set up a molecular pathology laboratory.

Zaki intended to go back to Egypt, but agreed to what he thought would be a short-term job. “It was good money,” he said. The temporary gig, which began in 1987, has stretched to nearly three decades. His two children, a daughter, 29, and a son, 28, grew up in Atlanta.

LeDuc, who was at the CDC from the early 1990s to 2006, said that before Zaki arrived, the emerging infectious diseases program did not have the capacity to do pathology work. “He brought with him some unique skills, especially the ability to identify in tissues infectious organisms. And that skill hadn’t been at CDC in the past.”

Zaki’s mother may have originally thought pathologists were not real doctors. But in medical circles, pathologists are known as “the doctor’s doctor.”

Murphy, Zaki’s one-time boss, is now retired and living in Bethesda, Md. He started out as a veterinarian but went on to study human tissues through an electron microscope, the powerful tool he used to snap Ebola’s first picture.

Murphy thinks of himself as a pathologist “with a small p” — but that’s not the way he describes Zaki. “I think those real pathologists have a different kind of brain. … They never forget something they’ve seen.”

While not downplaying Zaki’s skills, both Murphy and LeDuc said that part of their former colleague’s success rests with where he works.

The Atlanta-based agency has for decades drawn the most interesting medical mysteries from the far corners of the earth. If scientists elsewhere are stumped by a troubling case, they often turn for help to the CDC.

But another former Zaki colleague frames the situation differently. Tom Ksiazek is one of those high-consequence pathogens legends of whom LeDuc spoke. At the CDC from 1991 to 2008, he too is now at Galveston.

Many of the most interesting cases often do filter to CDC, Ksiazek said. “And that’s not simply because the institution of CDC exists but rather because of the reputation that’s been created by Sherif, personally and with his colleagues.”

Dr. Sherif Zaki

Raymond McCrea Jones for STAT

Zaki’s wife made him a ceramic mug decorated with Ebola virus. It sits on a table in his office at the CDC.

Zaki is good at making connections, both with others and with the evidence before him. It’s how he identified leptospirosis when he saw it in Nicaragua.

It might also explain how he cracked the mystery surrounding cases of a viral infection in four people who had received organ transplants.

Three of the four had died, and the state health departments in Rhode Island and Massachusetts couldn’t determine what had made them sick. Zaki and his team figured out it was Lymphocytic choriomeningitis, a virus that is carried by rodents but that rarely causes serious illness in people in the United States.

The organ donor’s daughter had a hamster.

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