A pair of French scientists who isolated the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and a German scientist who determined that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine today.
The Nobel committee's decision to give the prize to Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who isolated HIV in 1983, caps a long, bitter dispute between the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where they made their discovery, and American scientist Robert Gallo, who linked HIV to AIDS separately but was snubbed by the Nobel committee.
Gallo, then a division chief at the National Cancer Institute, made the connection between HIV and AIDS in research published in 1984 in the journal Science. A year later, the Pasteur Institute sued him for allegedly using one of its samples of HIV to draw his conclusion.
In 1992 a review panel of the National Academy of Sciences determined that the sample Gallo used was contaminated with material from the Pasteur Institute, and accused him of “intellectual recklessness of a high degree.” That same year, Gallo was found guilty of scientific misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Public Health Serivce.
Both determinations were overturned on appeal. Gallo and Montagnier, 76, co-authored at least two papers, one for Scientific American in 1988, and another in Science in 2002 in which they credited each other with aspects of the discovery.
Today, members of the Nobel committee said the award was given to the right scientists.
“These two persons awarded today made the discovery,” Jan Andersson said at a Stockholm press conference broadcast online. “They provided the virus.”
Added Göran Hansson, another member of the committee: “It’s completely evident the discovery was made in Paris. It’s quite clear if you go to the scientific magazines.”
But Montagnier, remarking on the omission of Gallo from the prize, told the Associated Press that "it is certain that he deserved this as much as us two."
Gallo told the AP that the snub was “a disappointment” but that the three winners deserved the prize.
“I am pleased my long-time friend and colleague Dr. Luc Montagnier, as well as his colleague Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, have received this honor," Gallo, co-director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in a statement afternoon. "I was gratified to read Dr. Montagnier’s kind statement this morning expressing that I was equally deserving. I am pleased that the Nobel Committee chose to recognize the importance of AIDS with these awards.”
Barre-Sinoussi, 61, had not yet been reached by the Nobel committee when they announced the prize at 11:30 A.M. Central European Time (5:30 A.M. Eastern time), and a spokeswoman for the Pasteur Institute, where she is director of the regulation of retroviral infections unit, said she was traveling. From Cambodia, Barre-Sinoussi told the AP that she and Montagnier hoped that identifying HIV would have curbed its spread. Some 33 million people around the world are living with the virus, and 25 million have died of AIDS.
"We naively thought that the discovery of the virus would allow us to quickly learn more about it, to develop diagnostic tests — which has been done — and to develop treatments, which has also been done to a large extent and, most of all, develop a vaccine that would prevent the global epidemic," she told the newswire.
The work of the other Nobel awardee, Harald zur Hausen, 72, set the stage for the new cervical cancer vaccine.
In 1974 zur Hausen speculated that cervical cancer—the second-most common tumor in women—might be caused by HPV. Nine years later, he identified one strain of the sexually transmitted virus, HPV-16, determining it was found in 53 percent of cervical cancers. Zur Hausen, former scientific director of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, went on to isolate another strain, HPV-18, which is responsible for another 17 to 23 percent of cases.
Today, the vaccine's manufacturer, Merck, says the vaccine is 95 percent or more effective in preventing tumors in women who receive the three-shot series.
"I'm not prepared for this," zur Hausen told the AP. "We're drinking a little glass of bubbly right now."
Diane Harper, who worked on the cervical cancer vaccine for both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, which is making its own shots, said she “was delighted this morning to hear the news.”
“It is an honor very much deserved towards our understanding of alternate mechanisms of oncogenesis by virus infections,” Harper said in an e-mail. “His discovery has led to much understanding about HPV, cervical cancer screening and the primary prevention of some cervical cancers.”
Updated at 3:40 p.m. with comment from Gallo, Montagnier, Barre-Sinoussi and zur Hausen.