German, French scientists win Nobel for identifying viruses

7th October 2008, Comments 0 comments

German scientist Harald zur Hausen was awarded the prize for discovering the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer.

Stockholm -- The Nobel Prize for medicine went to the European scientists who discovered the viruses that cause cervical cancer and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), officials announced Monday.

German scientist Harald zur Hausen was awarded the prize for discovering the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer, while French scientists Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, won the award for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

The award, the highest for medicine, is worth 10 million kronor (1.5 million dollars, 1 million euro). Zur Hausen won half the amount while the French duo shared the other half.

The two viruses have caused "great suffering," Professor Bjorn Vennstrom of the Nobel Committee at the Karolinska Institute, told Swedish radio.

The discovery of the HIV virus helped researchers understand the "biology of the disease and its antiretroviral treatment," the Karolinska Institute said.

Zur Hausen's discovery led to the development of a vaccine against cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. Born in 1936, he worked as professor and former chairman and scientific director of the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg up to his retirement.

About 5 percent of all cancers worldwide are attributed to human papilloma virus. Some 500,000 cervical cancer cases are reported each year.

Of the 100 human papilloma viruses, zur Hausen was able in 1983 and 1984 to identify two types, HPV16 and HPV18, that cause 70 percent of all cancers of the cervix, the opening to the uterus.

The vaccines offer almost 95 percent protection, and "reduce the need for surgery and the global burden of cervical cancer," the institute said.

"Cervical cancer is more common in developing countries, and mortality rates are much higher than in the West," Vennstrom added, saying the Karolinska Institute had no position on whether or not it should recommend the general vaccination of young girls.

Zur Hausen on Monday said he was excited to hear the news he had won.

"I'm really pleased. I'm also happy for my assistants, who all played a major role," he said in Heidelberg where he toasted his success with a glass of champagne. "I sometimes thought about (the Nobel prize), because I knew I'd often been recommended for it. But I really didn't expect to get it."

Asked why US researcher Robert Gallo -- who was engaged in a long-running debate with Montagnier over the HIV discovery -- was not included in the prize, Bertil Fredholm, head of the Nobel Committee at the Karolinska Institute, told reporters that the groundbreaking research "had been made in France."

Karolinska Institute members were "the experts" on matters concerning the decision on who was worthy of a Nobel Prize, he added.

Barre-Sinoussi, born in 1947, holds a PhD in virology and heads the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Montagnier was born in 1932 and is retired Professor and Director at the Paris-based World Foundation for Aids Research and Prevention.

The findings by the two French researchers had contributed to improve efforts to diagnose patients, and to screen blood that has limited the spread of the pandemic.

Antiviral drugs have further increased life expectancy rates.

Professor Bo Angelin, also of the Karolinska Institute, said the findings in the two areas of virus had helped develop measures "to attempt to prevent the spread the diseases."

The medicine prize is the first of this year's Nobel awards, which are also made for chemistry, physics, literature, and peace.

They were endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

The economic sciences prize -- a prize not endowed by Nobel and awarded since 1968 -- is slated to be announced Oct. 13. The award ceremonies are held Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's 1896 death in San Remo, Italy.


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