Three Europeans Win The 2008 Nobel Prize For Medicine

Monday, October 6, 2008

Three European scientists who discovered viruses that cause cervical cancer and AIDS share this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine. A German virologist, Harald zur Hausen, will receive half the award for his discovery of H.P.V., the human papilloma virus, according to the announcement made on Monday by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which selects the medical winners of the prize. The discovery led to development of a vaccine against cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

The institute said the other half of the award will be shared equally by two French virologists, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, for discovering H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. 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.

Dr. zur Hausen of the University of Heidelberg was cited for discovering the first H.P.V., type 16, in 1983 from biopsies of women who had cervical cancer. A year later, Dr. zur Hausen cloned H.P.V. 16 and another type, 18. The two H.P.V. types are consistently found in about 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies throughout the world, the institute said.

Of the more than 100 human papilloma viruses now known, about 40 infect the genital tract, and 15 of them put women at high risk for cervical cancer. Papilloma viruses account for more than 5 percent of all cancers worldwide.

The Karolinska Institute said that discovery of H.I.V. by the French scientists, Dr. Barre-Sinoussi and Dr. Montagnier, led to blood tests to detect the infection and to anti-retroviral drugs that are effective in prolonging the lives of patients. The tests are now used to screen blood donations, making the blood supply safer for transfusions. 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 unless treated.

H.I.V. is a member of the lentivirus family of viruses. The French scientists were cited for identifying what is now known as H.I.V. in lymph nodes from early and late stages of the infection.

“Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity,” the Karolinska Institute said.

Nobel Foundation rules limit the number of recipients of its medical prizes to a maximum of three each year, and omissions often create controversy. This year, the Karolinska committee excluded an AIDS virologist, Dr. Robert C. Gallo, who worked for many years at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., before moving to the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Dr. Gallo and the French team have vied in a long-running dispute over credit for the discovery of H.I.V. and the development of a test to detect it in blood. In 1987, President Reagan and Jacques Chirac, who was then prime minister of France, signed an agreement that allowed the two countries’ institutes to share millions of dollars of royalties and credit for the discovery.

Dr. Gallo told the Associated Press on Monday that it was “a disappointment” not to have been honored with the French team. Dr. John E. Niederhuber, the director of the National Cancer Institute, said Monday that Dr. Gallo “was instrumental in every major aspect of the discovery of the AIDS virus.” He added: “Dr. Gallo discovered interleukein-2 (Il-2), an immune system signaling molecule, which was necessary for the discovery of the AIDS virus, serving as a co-culture factor that allowed the virus to grow. Numerous scientific journal articles, many co-authored by Dr. Gallo and Dr. Luc Montagnier, cite the two scientists as co-discoverers of the AIDS virus.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a virologist and immunologist who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was delighted that the Karolinska committee honored the discoverers of two viruses that cause two important diseases.

“There’s no doubt that Bob Gallo made enormous contributions to AIDS research, and if the Nobel rules allowed four recipients, Bob would belong in the group” that was honored on Monday, Dr. Fauci said in an interview.