Nobel for AIDS, HPV research

Times Staff Writer

Two French researchers who discovered the human AIDS virus and a German scientist who showed that human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer were awarded Monday the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The decision in effect ends the long-running dispute between France’s Luc Monta- gnier and America’s Robert Gallo, concluding that Monta- gnier and his colleague Francoise Barre-Sinoussi were the discoverers of the virus. More than 33 million people worldwide are HIV carriers.

The $1.4-million prize was shared with Dr. Harald zur Hausen of the University of Dusseldorf for discovering the viruses that cause genital warts and are responsible for an estimated 500,000 cases of cervical cancer each year.


“I’m not prepared for this,” Zur Hausen, 72, told the Associated Press. “We’re drinking a little glass of bubbly right now.”

Montagnier, 76, is director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention in Paris; Barre-Sinoussi, 61, is still at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where the discovery was made.

Barre-Sinoussi received word of the prize in Cambodia, where she is conducting research, while Montagnier was in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, delivering a lecture.

Their work was honored, the Nobel citation said, because never before have “science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin, and provide treatment for a new disease entity.”

Montagnier and Gallo conducted a bitter public dispute over discovery of HIV in the 1980s, with each accusing the other of misusing samples.

At stake was not only scientific primacy for the discovery of the virus but also millions of dollars in licensing fees from HIV detection tests.

The dispute was so contentious that then-President Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac intervened in 1987, negotiating an agreement that divided the royalties equally.

In 1991, however, further studies showed that the virus isolated by Gallo was identical to Montagnier’s and different from the viruses carried by the patients Gallo claimed to have isolated it from. Three years later, the U.S. government conceded that the French should receive the lion’s share of royalties from the AIDS test, affirming Montagnier’s role.

The Nobel citation did not mention Gallo, noting only that “after the discovery of the virus, several groups contributed to the definitive demonstration of HIV as the cause” of AIDS.

Montagnier said he wished that Gallo had shared in the award. “It is certain that he deserved this as much as us two,” he told the Associated Press.

Zur Hausen’s work was far less controversial, although his proposal that human papilloma virus, known as HPV, causes cervical cancer was initially disparaged.

But he reasoned that if the virus played such a role, its genes would be incorporated into those of tumor cells, and he spent more than a decade looking for evidence. His work was complicated by the fact that only segments of the virus made it into the tumor DNA.

After a decade of searching, in 1984 he found that one strain, called HPV-16, was in some tumors. The following year, he showed that a second strain, HPV-18, was in others. He then cloned the two viruses and made them available to other researchers.

Those two strains are now known to cause an estimated 70% of all cases of cervical cancer, and vaccines against them, Gardasil and Cervarix, are now beginning to play a crucial role in preventing the disease.

The prizes will be presented in Stockholm on Dec. 10.