This weekly series highlights eponyms in oncology. This week, we explore the history and namesake of the Bence-Jones protein.
Bence-Jones proteins are monoclonal free light chains of immunoglobulin.1 They are made by plasma cells and found in the urine.2
Increased levels of Bence-Jones protein are typically seen in the setting of malignancy.1 Bence-Jones proteinuria is most often used to diagnose multiple myeloma but is also observed in patients with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and other B-cell neoplasms.
History of the Name
Henry Bence Jones, MD, is the namesake of the Bence-Jones protein. He was born in 1813 in Suffolk, England.3 He earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degree from Cambridge University.4
In 1845, Dr Bence Jones was appointed as an assistant physician and lecturer at St. George’s Hospital.3 That same year, he was asked to analyze a urine sample from Thomas Alexander McBean, a London grocer who was experiencing sudden and persistent chest pain.
The physician treating McBean, William MacIntyre, MD, noted peripheral edema. Suspecting nephrosis, Dr MacIntyre attempted to precipitate albumin from the patient’s urine by heating it, allowing it to cool, and adding nitric acid.
Heating the sample allowed Dr MacIntyre to isolate albumin, but there was no precipitation with the addition of nitric acid. The urine became clear and remained that way for 1-1.5 hours. It then transformed into a firm, yellow substance that dissolved when the sample was reheated.
Unable to determine the cause of this thermolability, Dr MacIntyre sent a sample of the urine to Dr Bence Jones. He determined that the heat-precipitated protein, which later would bear his name, was different from albumin.
McBean died in 1846, and a post-mortem examination showed soft, brittle ribs. In 2 articles Dr Bence Jones subsequently published on the urinary findings, he advised readers to seek the protein in other cases of “mollities ossium” (soft bones), now known as multiple myeloma.
The term “Bence-Jones protein” was first used by Dr Richard Fleischer in 1880. Due to his emphasis on the urinary findings, Dr Bence Jones is credited with the discovery of the protein.4
Dr Bence Jones died of cardiac failure in 1873 at the age of 60.3 His obituary did not mention his work on the urinary protein that was named after him.4
Many years later, in 1956, Leonard Korngold, PhD, and Rose Lipari discovered the monoclonal nature of the Bence-Jones protein after finding it in the serum of patients with multiple myeloma.5
- Chauveau D, Choukroun G. Bence Jones proteinuria and myeloma kidney. Nephrol Dial Transplant. 1996;11:413-415. https://doi.org/10.1093/ndt/11.3.413
- Bence Jones protein. National Cancer Institute. Accessed May 19, 2022. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/bence-jones-protein
- Rathore R, Coward RA, Woywodt A. What’s in a name? Bence Jones protein. Clin Kidney J. 2012;5(5):478-483. doi:10.1093/ckj/sfs127
- Stone MJ. Henry Bence Jones and his protein. J Med Biogr. 1998;6(1):53-57. doi:10.1177/096777209800600112
- Korngold L, Lipari R. Multiple-myeloma proteins. III. The antigenic relationship of Bence Jones proteins to normal gammaglobulin and multiple-myeloma serum proteins. Cancer. 1956;9(2):262-72. doi:10.1002/1097-0142(195603/04)9:2<262::aid-cncr2820090210>3.0.co;2-b