Nobel Virology 2008

It gives me great and unalloyed pleasure, as someone acquainted with one of the new Nobellists, and who has followed the science behind the awards ever since the beginning, to feature the three virologists who were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2008.

Discoverers of AIDS and Cancer Viruses Win Nobel Prize – via kwout

To quote the NY Times article, written by Lawrence K Altman:

“The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded Monday to three European scientists who had discovered viruses behind two devastating illnesses, AIDS and cervical cancer.

Half of the award will be shared by two French virologists, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, 61, and Luc A. Montagnier, 76, for discovering H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Conspicuously omitted was Dr. Robert C. Gallo, an American virologist who vied with the French team in a long, often acrimonious dispute over credit for the discovery of H.I.V.

The other 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.

His discovery led to the development of two vaccines against cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. An estimated 250,000 women die of cervical cancer each year, mostly in poor countries.”

The news is all the more welcome, because I am very familiar with the entire history.  The HIV pandemic has paralleled most of my career: I remember vividly my then Honours student – now a distinguished Professor in her own right – coming to me in 1984 to tell me that “…they have found the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome”.  Again, it was greatly of interest when Harald zur Hausen initiated the work that would lead to his award, as it was some of the first hard evidence that viruses were implicated in cancer – which suddenly made learning and teaching Virology a whole lot more sexy.  Especially in view of the mode of transmission of the viruses concerned…I like to think I may have put more people off casual sex by talking about viruses like herpes, HPV and HIV and what they can do to you, than any ten school guidance counsellors – but I digress.

The news is also welcome because I now work with both HPV and HIV: thus, reward for the people who invented our main field of endeavour is especially pleasing.

 But as ever, the Nobel awards are not without controversy.  Altman again:

“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.

H.I.V. is a member of the lentivirus family of viruses. The French scientists were cited for identifying a virus they called L.A.V. (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.

The dispute between Dr. Gallo and the French team spanned years and sprawled from the lab into the highest levels of government. Dr. Gallo, 71, now at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, worked for many years at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

While in Bethesda in 1984, a year after the French team’s report, Dr. Gallo reported finding a virus that he called H.T.L.V.-3 and that was later shown to be nearly identical to the French L.A.V. After additional studies, Dr. Gallo said cultures in his laboratory had accidentally become contaminated with the French virus.

In 1986, Dr. Gallo and Dr. Montagnier shared a prestigious Lasker award, given in the United States; Dr. Montagnier was cited for discovering the virus and Dr. Gallo for determining that it caused AIDS.

In 1987, President Reagan and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac of France signed an agreement to share royalties and credit for the discovery.

But Maria Masucci, a member of the Nobel Assembly, told Reuters on Monday that “there was no doubt as to who made the fundamental discoveries.”

Dr. Gallo told The Associated Press on Monday that it was “a disappointment” not to have been honored with the French team. Later, Dr. Gallo issued a statement congratulating this year’s Nobel Prize winners and said he “was gratified to read Dr. Montagnier’s kind statement this morning expressing that I was equally deserving.” “

We’ve been waiting for this for a long time…and the result is interesting indeed, for many of us virologists.  Satisfying too….  I remember wondering at the time how the US team could blithely rename a virus that appeared very similar to one described a year earlier – and was even more fascinated to see how the story unfolded, with LAV becoming HTLV-III becoming HIV, as eventually sense and taxonomy overtook hubris.

The HPV award seems not to be controversial at all, and Professor zur Hausen is seen by everyone I have spoken to as a most worthy recipient.  Now, just to get that vaccine into people who need it….

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3 Responses to “Nobel Virology 2008”

  1. Lance A Says:

    Wow didnt know that virology was so cut throat, not as bad as south african politics though:)

  2. Papillomaviruses and human cancer | ViroBlogy Says:

    […] Harald zur Hausen was awarded a half share of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses [sic] causing cervical cancer”.  I blogged on this at the time, here. […]

  3. Human retroviruses and cancer | ViroBlogy Says:

    […] Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) was for a time after its discovery in 1983 called HTLV-III by the Gallo group and lymphadenopathy virus (LAV) by the Montagnier group; however, evidence later obtained from sequencing and genome organisation showed by 1986 that it was in fact a lentivirus, related to viruses such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and the equine infectious anaemia virus discovered in 1904, and it was renamed.  Francoise Barre-Sinoussie and Luc Montagnier were awarded a half share in a 2008 Nobel Prize, commemorated here […]

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