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Alberto Ascherio

Professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


Alberto Ascherio began his career as a young doctor treating tropical diseases in South American rainforests and parts of Africa. Over the next quarter-century, he made his way to what is now his wheelhouse: studying the links between viruses and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Perhaps none of his projects have generated as much attention as his 2022 paper, which offered strong evidence, through a 20-year study of more than 10 million people, that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, most commonly known for causing mononucleosis, increased the likelihood of developing MS by more than 32-fold. That finding, which happened to come out during the Covid pandemic, has since driven renewed research and investment in both multiple sclerosis and efforts to develop a vaccine against Epstein-Barr, and added to a wave of research on the viral roots of various chronic diseases.

STAT spoke with Ascherio about his breakthrough finding and what he hopes to achieve in the next stage of his career. — Isabella Cueto

Your January 2022 Science paper has over 315,000 impressions, and is considered by some to be one of the biggest medical science discoveries of the past year. What was it like to get that much attention? 

It was good, after you work on something for so long. I’m more focused on the science and the next steps. But I realized that the recognition is useful because it generated not just the number of citations, but people now are working on it. That is what matters to me — that they are trying to find a way to build on this finding, to find a way to prevent or to treat MS. I think it’s been good to shake the field a bit and to attract resources to this area. 

Your study on Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and MS was a long project. Was there a moment that stands out in your memory, when you realized the work would make a big splash? 

Sometimes, where you publish could be at least as important as what you publish. So the big thing has been, obviously, being accepted in Science. It was not a sudden discovery, because during these 20 years we’d been accumulating evidence. It wouldn’t make a good movie, a wow moment that you look at the data and say, “Oh, wow! We discovered EBV is causing MS!” 

What is the number one, most burning question you hope to answer in the next phase of your career?

The dream of my life is to do something useful for people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which is such a dramatic disease. It’s less common, to some extent, than MS. But the disease course is a relatively rapid progressive disease. The median survival is only about three years. We are working on ALS, and we have some good preliminary results and some clues. That is my dream.



  • Boston, MA


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