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October 7, 2008 3:00 am
Three European scientists shared the first of this year's Nobel awards, the medicine prize, for identifying the viruses responsible for Aids and cervical cancer.
Yesterday's award of half the SKr10m ($1.4m, €1m, £800,000) prize to Harald zur Hausen of Germany, for discovering in the 1970s that human papilloma virus (HPV) causes cervical cancer, received widespread acclaim. Prof zur Hausen disproved the common view of oncologists at the time that viruses did not play a significant role in cancer.
But the Karolinska Institute's Nobel Assembly renewed one of the great scientific controversies of the 1980s by giving the other half share to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier of France, for dis-covering 25 years ago the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes Aids.
Prof Montagnier, now director of the World Foundation for Aids Research and Prevention in Paris, had a very public dispute with Robert Gallo, a US virologist, over who should receive credit for discovering HIV.
Their scientific disa-greement escalated into a diplomatic dispute between France and the US. In 1987, Profs Montagnier and Gallo were recognised as co-discoverers of the virus under an agreement brokered by their national governments, with profits from the HIV tests resulting from the discovery channelled into Aids research.
The Nobel Assembly has now given its verdict by recognising Prof Montagnier but not Prof Gallo. Prof Montagnier's half of the prize is shared instead with Prof Barré-Sinoussi, with whom he worked at the Institut Pasteur in Paris from 1981 to discover the infectious agent responsible for what was then a mysterious new disease destroying patients' immune defences.
The two French scientists identified a pathogen, which became known as HIV, in blood cells from Aids patients. "The discovery was one prerequisite for the current understanding of the biology of the disease and its treatment," the citation said.
The Nobel Assembly said the scientific community agreed that the French pair were responsible for the earliest work characterising HIV. Prof Gallo, who runs the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland, told the Asso-ciated Press it was "a disappointment" not to be honoured but added that all three recipients deserved the award. The Nobel rules prevent more than three people sharing one prize.
The award to Prof zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg was uncontroversial. His discovery of the role played by HPV in triggering cervical cancer had a huge influence on the way scientists view the early development of tumours.
Prof zur Hausen's research has led to vaccines that protect young women against cervical cancer by preventing infection with HPV. Sales of Merck's Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix exceed $1bn a year.
Adriano Boasso, an HIV researcher at Imperial College London, commented that while the prize honoured "two seminal discoveries in the fields of virology and immunology, medical research on these two viruses appears to have followed two different fates".
"The availability of a vaccine against HPV is now a reality," Dr Boasso said. "HIV vaccine research has instead recently suffered the failure of promising clinical trials but there is no doubt the discovery of HIV by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier will be the pillar on which an efficient vaccine will eventually be built."
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