June Almeida, on the tracks of the first human coronaviruses

May 22nd, 2020, by Labtoo's team

While the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on, the name of June Almeida is starting to emerge in the media. In this article, we look back at the life of this Scottish virologist who first observed and documented a human coronavirus in the 1960s.

June Almeida portrait, sur les traces des premiers coronavirus

A scientific destiny

Born in Glasgow in 1930, June Dalziel Hart started her career in healthcare very soon: her parents could not financially allow her to attend university, so the brilliant young girl left school at 16 to work a year later at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a histopathology technician. She was then enlisted at the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital of London and met there her future husband, the Venezuelan artist Enriques Almeida.

The couple emigrated in 1954 to Canada, and June Almeida pursued her career at the Ontario Cancer Institute of Toronto as an electron microscopy technician. Her name appeared on several scientific papers on the identification of viral structures, and quickly drew A.P. Waterson’s attention, professor of microbiology at St. Thomas’s Hospital. Waterson convinced Almeida to join his team in London in 1964, and the young woman used this opportunity to perfect a revolutionary microscopy method that she had just developed.

A pioneering imaging technique

Former electron microscopy allowed researchers to observe micro-organisms with more or less details, so that it was sometimes difficult to discern a virus from another microscopic body.

The method created by June Almeida to overcome this difficulty and thus isolate viruses from other micro-organisms is fairly simple, yet efficient: she collects antibodies from previously infected patients and brings them to her biological sample containing the virus. Antibodies aggregate around the viral particles, allowing June Almeida to identify which visible particles are viruses and which are not by using a negative staining.

Her research and publications on electron microscopy allowed her to get awarded a Doctor of Sciences (Sc.D.) degree in 1964 based on her research works. Her discovery of immune electron microscopy enabled her to study the hepatitis B virus and the cold virus within the Common Cold Research Unit with its director David Tyrrell.

In 1966, Waterson, Almeida and Tyrrell worked together on a project involving rhinoviruses on tissue cultures of human cells; among the studied viral samples, a specific respiratory virus named B814 proved to be difficult to cultivate. Tyrrell’s team efforts to observe this virus had also failed so far. June Almeida claimed to her colleagues that she could isolate B814 and produce detailed pictures of it thanks to her new imaging technique. Despite Tyrrell’s skepticism towards Almeida’s words, he agreed to give her samples of B814 virus, along with samples infected with influenza and herpes.

Under her microscope, June Almeida easily isolates the viruses contained in Tyrrell’s samples. More importantly, the structure of B814 reminds her of two other viruses that she had previously studied, responsible of the avian infectious bronchitis and the murine hepatitis. At that time, Almeida’s articles on these two viruses had been rejected because the referees considered her electron micrographs to be bad pictures of an influenza virus. After being guaranteed to have discovered a new family of virus, she shared her discovery with Tyrrell and Waterson. The three of them met in Waterson’s office to decide on its name. As the virus appeared to be surrounded by a halo shaped as a crown, corona in Latin, the team decided to give it the name of coronavirus. This brand-new appellation would then be accepted by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) in 1975.

However, June Almeida’s discoveries do not stop here. She was the first researcher to obtain pictures of the rubella virus and to identify two major components in the hepatitis B viral structure. She also worked at the Wellcome Institute of London where her work allowed her to be named on several patents in the field of imaging viruses. She wrote in 1979 a Manual for rapid laboratory viral diagnosis for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Her first marriage ended in a divorce in 1982 and she retired from the Wellcome Institute in 1985 with her second husband, the virologist Phillip Samuel Gardner. She trained as a yoga teacher at Bexhill-on-Sea but quickly went back to research in the late 1980s to produce micrographs of the HIV virus. June Almeida died from a heart attack in 2007 aged 77.

A reemerging legacy

The COVID-19 pandemic that the world is currently going through has permitted to fully acknowledge June Almeida, whose virology breakthroughs had been long forgotten. Her story has been featured in several tributes by the Scottish newspaper The Herald, the BBC and National Geographic in March and April 2020, and in many other media afterwards.

The Herald has interviewed Aberdeen emeritus professor of bacteriology Hugh Pennington in March 2020, as he had the opportunity to work with June Almeida at St. Thomas. Describing her as his “mentor”, she was, according to him, “one of the outstanding Scottish scientists of her generation”. Even the identification of COVID-19 by Chinese researchers was made by immune electron microscopy.

Brilliant and remarkable with an atypical professional path, but sadly largely forgotten despite her great discoveries in virology, June Almeida finally gets the recognition she fully deserves. Her major breakthroughs have never been more needed than now – half a century later – in a world of crisis caused by a coronavirus that she was the first to discover.

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