October 7, 2008

3 Scientists in Europe Share Nobel in Medicine Research on AIDS and Cancer is Honored

By Lawrence K. Altman

Three European scientists who discovered viruses that cause cervical cancer and AIDS share this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine.

A German virologist, Harald zur Hausen, will receive half the award for his discovery of HPV, the human papilloma virus, according to the announcement made Monday by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which selects the winners of the medical prize. The discovery led to development of a vaccine against cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

The institute said the other half of the award would be shared equally by two French virologists, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, for discovering HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The virus has caused one of the most devastating epidemics in history.

Zur Hausen, of the University of Heidelberg, was cited for discovering the first HPV type 16, in 1983, from biopsies of women who had cervical cancer. A year later, zur Hausen cloned HPV 16 and another type, 18. The two HPV types are consistently found in about 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies throughout the world, the institute said.

Of the more than 100 human papilloma viruses now known, about 40 infect the genital tract, and 15 of them put women at high risk for cervical cancer. Papilloma viruses account for more than 5 percent of all cancers worldwide.

The Karolinska Institute said that discovery of HIV by the French scientists, Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier, led to blood tests to detect the infection and to anti-retroviral drugs that are effective in prolonging the lives of patients. The tests are now used to screen blood donations, making the blood supply safer for transfusions.

The viral discovery has also led to an understanding of the natural history of HIV infection in people, which ultimately leads to AIDS unless treated.

HIV is a member of the lentivirus family of viruses. The French scientists were cited for identifying what is now known as HIV in lymph nodes from early and late stages of the infection.

"Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity," the Karolinska Institute said.

The Nobel Prize was created in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish explosives inventor and manufacturer, who died in 1896.

The first prizes were awarded in 1901.

The other Nobel Prizes - in physics, chemistry, literature and peace - are scheduled to be announced later in the week.

The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science is due to be announced on Oct. 13.

The award Monday to Barre-Sinoussi was something of a milestone: Only seven women had previously won the medicine prize.

The last female winner was the American researcher Linda Buck, who shared the prize in 2004 with Richard Axel.

The 2007 prize in medicine was won by Martin Evans of Britain and two Americans, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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