Three virologists have been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Harald zur Hausen was recognized for discovering human papilloma virus (HPV), while Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi were acknowledged for first isolating human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1).
Zur Hausen isolated HPV type 16 in 1983 from women with cervical cancer. A year later he identified type 18; together these two serotypes are found in 70% of biopsies. His work lead to the development of vaccines against the virus. These vaccines have been the topic of some controversy, as we have discussed previously.
Drs. Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier were part of the group at the Institut Pasteur in Paris that discovered the causative agent of AIDS in 1981. Clearly this was an enormous discovery as the AIDS epidemic has since claimed over 25 million lives. However, what is perhaps as interesting is the omission in this year’s Nobel: Robert Gallo. The latter, working at the NIH, also was believed to have isolated HIV-1, but it is now acknowledged that the Pasteur group was the first to isolate the virus. Apparently the Nobel committee agrees.