From left, Dr. Harald zur Hausen, 72, of Germany, and French virologists Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, 61, and Dr. Luc Montagnier, 76.
Thomas Kienzle/AP, Stephane De Sakutin/AFP— Getty Images, Luc Gnago/Reuters
The Nobel Prize (2008) in Medicine was awarded to three European scientists who had discovered viruses behind two devastating illnesses, cervical cancer and AIDS.
Half of the $1.4 million award will go to a German physician-scientist, Dr. Harald zur Hausen, 72, for his discovery of H.P.V., or the human papilloma virus. Dr. zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg “went against current dogma” by postulating that the virus caused cervical cancer, said the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which selects the medical winners of the prize, formally called the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The link between human papilloma virus and cervical cancer took years to gain acceptance.
In The Cockroach Catcher:
“Certain conditions were said to be linked to morality. Once upon a time cervical cancer was considered a sign of promiscuity and multiple partners. In medical school we were taught that circumcision was definitely related to very low or zero incidence of this amongst the Jews. It was a convenient way of fitting findings to a view. Little was said of other religious groups with similar circumcision rituals that had the same cancer rate as non circumcised communities. Now that high risk HPVs have been identified and a vaccine manufactured, we can look forward to a complete eradication of the condition.”
The New York Times reported on the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2008:
"In the 1980s, an American researcher said that financing agencies in the United States had rejected as unpromising his grant proposals to study links between papilloma viruses and cancer. The National Institutes of Health did not reply on Monday to questions about such proposals.
"In 1983, Dr. zur Hausen discovered the first H.P.V., type 16, among biopsies of women who had cervical cancer. He went on to show that more than one H.P.V. type could lead to cervical cancer, in part by cloning H.P.V. 16 and another type, 18. Further research has shown that the two H.P.V. types are consistently found in about 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies throughout the world, the institute said.
"The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved one papilloma virus vaccine, Gardasil, for girls and women ages 9 to 26 and with advice that they get immunized before sexual activity begins. Because the vaccine was developed recently, doctors do not know for how long it will last. (GlaxoSmithKline produced Cervarix that is approved in Europe.)
"Since its discovery in 1981, AIDS has rivaled the worst epidemics in history. An estimated 25 million people have died, and 33 million more are living with H.I.V.
"In 1983, Dr. Montagnier and Dr. Barré-Sinoussi, a member of his lab at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, published their report of a newly identified virus. The Karolinska Institute said that discovery led to blood tests to detect the infection and to anti-retroviral drugs that can prolong the lives of patients. The tests are now used to screen blood donations, making the blood supply safer for transfusions and blood products.
"The viral discovery has also led to an understanding of the natural history of H.I.V. infection in people, which ultimately leads to AIDS and death unless treated."
Dr. Montagnier and Dr. Barré-Sinoussi share the other half of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, traditionally the first Nobel to be awarded each year.