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October 6, 2008
Updated October 10, 11:10 AM ET. Also appeared in print Oct. 13, 2008, p. 9


Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Discoverers of HIV and cancer-causing human papillomaviruses get the nod

Sarah Everts

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to three Europeans for research linking human papillomaviruses to cancer and for the discovery of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

zur Hausen Helmholtz Association
zur Hausen
Barré-Sinoussi Micheline Terquem/Pasteur Institute

Half of the $1.4 million prize goes to 72-year-old German virologist Harald zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Centre, in Heidelberg, "for his discovery of human papillomaviruses causing cervical cancer."

"I knew that I was a candidate for the prize, but when it actually happened, it was a big surprise," zur Hausen told C&EN. In the 1970s, zur Hausen "went against current dogma," according to the Nobel Assembly, when he proposed that the human papillomaviruses (HPVs) play a role in cervical cancer.

"Zur Hausen's talents and insights put his group at the forefront of an endeavor that three decades later" has produced a vaccine against HPVs that cause cervical and other cancers, says William Bonnez, a medical researcher at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and one of the inventors of an HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

Two French virologists will split the other half of the prize for their discovery of HIV. They are 76-year-old Luc Montagnier of the World Foundation for AIDS Research & Prevention and 61-year-old Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Pasteur Institute, in Paris.

Adapted from Tibotec
VIRAL TRACKING French researchers share the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering HIV.

Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi detected activity of the retroviral enzyme reverse transcriptase in samples from infected patients and made important early observations of how the virus affects the immune system, the Nobel Assembly noted.

"The significance of their achievements should be viewed in the context of a global ubiquitous epidemic affecting close to 1% of the population," according to the Nobel Assembly.

The announcement that Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi will share the prize, but not University of Maryland researcher Robert Gallo, formerly of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, has raised some eyebrows and ignited the blogosphere.

"A Nobel Prize for HIV is long overdue," says John M. Coffin, an HIV researcher at Tufts University. "But I would have thought Gallo would have been added to the list for his role in laying the groundwork for discovering HIV, in particular for developing ways of growing cells to assay for the virus."

Gallo released a statement congratulating the winners and noting that he "was gratified to read Dr. Montagnier's kind statement expressing that I was equally deserving." Gallo and Montagnier were involved in a harsh public debate over who discovered HIV. In the late 1980s, the debate came to a head over ownership of a patent for the HIV blood test. Former president Ronald Reagan and former french prime minister Jacques Chirac got involved, and finally, the two researchers agreed to split the patent and any subsequent income equally.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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