October 7, 2008

AIDS Pioneers Win Nobel Prize

By Steve Sternberg USA Today

The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded Monday to French researchers Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi for discovering the AIDS virus and to German virologist Harald zur Hausen for identifying viruses that cause cervical cancer.

The French researchers shared one half of the prize, totaling $1.4 million, for their discovery of the AIDS virus, edging out U.S. virologist Robert Gallo, of the Institute of Human Virology, who provided proof that the virus now known as HIV causes AIDS.

Zur Hausen, who in 1984 discovered two types of cancer-causing human papillomavirus, got the rest of the prize money. Cervical cancer is the second-most-common form of cancer among women. Research based on zur Hausen's work led to Gardasil, a cervical cancer vaccine approved in 2006.

The Nobel committee's decision to recognize Montagnier and Barre- Sinoussi for their AIDS research caps one of the most tumultuous scientific rivalries of the previous century, a race to uncover the cause of one of history's worst epidemics. To the winners of such a race go research grants, leadership positions and, possibly, the most coveted prize of all, the Nobel.

With stakes so high, the race was hotly contested. Montagnier, 78, now director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, and Barre-Sinoussi, 61, of the Pasteur Institute, both in Paris, reported in Science in 1983 that they had identified a virus they believed caused AIDS. In 1984, in the same journal, Gallo proved the virus was the culprit. He also appeared before the press to declare he had isolated the AIDS virus.

In an important spinoff of his research, Gallo isolated growth factors that allowed other researchers to grow HIV and study it. He also patented a blood test for the virus, a patent disputed by the French. In 1987, the battle reached the White House, when former President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac agreed to divide the royalties. Gallo and Montagnier agreed to share credit as co-discoverers of the virus.

Montagnier told The Associated Press in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he is attending an AIDS meeting, that he wished the prize had also gone to Gallo. "It is certain that he deserved this as much as us two," he said.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "Clearly the awardees are totally deserving." But he noted that Gallo suffered from the Nobel judges' decision to honor two discoveries. That's because the award goes to three researchers at most.

"It's too bad that the prize couldn't be given to four people," Fauci says. "You could make a very strong case to include Bob in that group."

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