Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Three European scientists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for separate discoveries of viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer, breakthroughs that helped doctors fight the deadly diseases.

French researchers Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier were cited for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in 1983.

They shared the award with Germany’s Harald zur Hausen, who was honored for finding human papillomaviruses that cause cervical cancer.

U.S. researcher Robert Gallo was locked in a dispute with Dr. Montagnier in the 1980s over the relative importance of their roles in groundbreaking research into HIV and its role in AIDS. Dr. Gallo told the Associated Press that he was disappointed at not being included in the prize.

Dr. Montagnier said in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he is attending an international AIDS conference, that he wished the prize had also gone to Dr. Gallo.

“It is certain that he deserved this as much as us two,” he said.

Dr. zur Hausen, a German medical doctor and scientist, received half of the $1.4 million prize, while the two French researchers shared the other half.

Dr. zur Hausen discovered two high-risk types of HPV and made them available to the scientific community, ultimately leading to the development of vaccines protecting against infection.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine Gardasil in 2006 for the prevention of cervical cancer in girls and women ages 9 to 26.

The vaccine works by protecting against strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV - including the two that Dr. zur Hausen discovered - that cause most cases of cervical cancers. The virus, transmitted by sexual contact, causes genital warts that sometimes develop into cancer.

“I’m not prepared for this,” Dr. zur Hausen, 72, of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, said by telephone. “We’re drinking a little glass of bubbly right now.”

Dr. Barre-Sinoussi, 61, is director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Union at the Institut Pasteur in France, while Dr. Montagnier, 76, is the director for the World Foundation for AIDS Research in Prevention, also in the French capital.

In its citation, the Nobel Assembly said Dr. Barre-Sinoussi and Dr. Montagnier’s discovery was one prerequisite for understanding the biology of AIDS and its treatment with antiviral drugs. The pair’s work in the early 1980s made it possible to study the virus closely.

Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland and a prominent early researcher in HIV, said it was “a disappointment” not to be honored along with Dr. Montagnier and Dr. Barre-Sinoussi.

But he said all three of the award’s recipients deserved the honor. No more than three people can share a Nobel Prize.

His dispute with Dr. Montagnier reached such a level in 1987 that President Reagan and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac of France penned an agreement dividing millions of dollars in royalties from the AIDS blood test. The settlement led to an agreement that officially credited the Gallo and Montagnier labs with co-discovering the virus.

In the 1990s, however, the U.S. government acknowledged that the French deserved a greater share of the royalties. The admission solidified the French position that Dr. Montagnier had isolated the virus in 1983, a year before Dr. Gallo did.

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