06 October 2008

2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine

Two French scientists who discovered the HIV virus, and a German who found the virus that causes cervical cancer, have been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Prof. Francoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Institute Pasteur and Dr. Luc Montagnier, director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, receive half the prize of 10 million Swedish Kronor (€ 1,024,427) for discovering the HIV virus.

Dr. Harald zur Hausen of Düsseldorf University in Germany was awarded the other half of the prize for his unconventional research into the cause of cervical cancer, clinical work that went against the dogma of established school medicine for quite some time.

"The three laureates have discovered two new viruses of great importance and the result of that has led to an improvement of global health," said Jan Andersson, a member of the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

When Dr. Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (left) and Dr. Luc Montagnier (right) began their research in the early 1980s, a hitherto undocumented immune deficiency syndrome began striking down victims throughout the western world. The French researchers isolated and cultured cells from patients with swollen lymph nodes characteristic of the early stage of acquired immune deficiency.

By 1984, they had obtained samples of the retrovirus from a variety of people. These included people who had been infected from sexual contact, haemophiliacs, patients who had received blood transfusions and infants who had contracted the disease from their mothers. The researchers found the virus infected and killed lymphocytes from both diseased and healthy donors and reacted with antibodies from infected patients. Their findings also helped explain how HIV impaired the immune system.

Dr. Harald zur Hausen (right) was recognised for research based on his idea that oncogenic human papilloma virus, or HPV, caused cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

The German scientist, who began his research in the 1970s, assumed that if HPV was causing the cancer it should be possible to detect it by searching tumour cells for a specific viral DNA. For ten years he searched for different human papilloma virus types, detecting them in cervix cancer biopsies. The virus types he found, and later cloned, are found in about 70% of cervical cancer biopsies around the world.

"More than 5% of all cancers worldwide are caused by persistent infection with this virus," the Nobel assembly stated during the announcement of the prize.
An estimated 500,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year and about 300,000 die from it, mostly in the developing world.

Medicine is traditionally the first category of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievements in Science, Literature and Peace were first awarded in 1901, in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. An Economics prize was established in 1968. This year's other Nobel laureates will be announced throughout this week, taking one category each day.

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