Nobel Prize for Medicine Awarded to Virus Hunters

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOct 6, 2008 6:01 PM


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Three researchers who discovered viruses that cause serious diseases have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine, the Nobel Foundation announced today. The prize was awarded jointly to France's Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who worked together to identify the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and also to the German scientist Harald zur Hausen who discovered the human papilloma viruses (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer. Barre-Sinoussi, who is the eighth woman to win the medicine prize since the first Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1901, worked with Montagnier to discover the HIV virus.

Shortly after reports in the early 1980s of a new immunodeficiency syndrome, researchers all over the world raced to find the cause. The two [researchers] cultured cells from lymph nodes of patients. They first detected the enzyme reverse transcriptase, which meant that a retrovirus was active. Further searching turned up retroviral particles, which could kill white blood cells and which also reacted with antibodies from infected patients [Scientific American].

As scientists began to realize the true threat posed by AIDS in the 1980s, every discovery about the mysterious ailment pushed the science forward and had immediate medical applications. The discovery of the virus allowed for the development of blood tests for HIV, which blood banks began to use to screen for infected blood; the Nobel Foundation says this "limited the spread of the pandemic." But in honoring Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi's contributions, the Foundation left out another important researcher:

Both Dr Montagnier and a US researcher Richard Gallo are co-credited with discovering that HIV causes Aids, although for several years they staked rival claims that led to a legal and even diplomatic dispute between France and America. The Nobel jury made no mention of Gallo in its citation [BBC News].

The other recipient of the prize, Zur Hausen, created controversy in the 1970s when he began working on his hypothesis that viruses caused cervical cancer; the Noble Foundation says his work "went against current dogma." After a decade of searching he found the human papilloma viruses that can cause cervical cancer; his

discovery paved the way for the development of Merck & Co.'s Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline Plc's Cervarix vaccines. The shots could help protect the 500,000 women who are affected by cervical cancer every year, the Foundation said. "It was his vision that the virus causes cancer and he persistently searched for proof," [said Zur Hausen's former student] Matthias Duerst [Bloomberg].

For more on these discoveries, see the DISCOVER articles "How We Got the Controversial HPV Vaccine" and "Blood Money," about HIV in France's blood banks. Image: Nobel Foundation

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