Monday, October 6, 2008

2008 Nobel Prize for medicine honours 3 vaccine researchers

Somewhat controversially, the Nobel committee has awarded the Prize for Physiology and Medicine to three Europeans. Harald zur Hausen discovered human papilloma viruses (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and two Frenchmen, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier made the groundbreaking discovery of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1983, a year ahead of the American scientist, Robert Gallo.

Zur Hausen discovered two high-risk types of the HPV virus and made them available to the scientific community, ultimately leading to the development of vaccines protecting against infection. Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are now commercially available.

None - This image is in the public domain and ...Image via WikipediaThe Nobel Assembly noted that Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier's discovery was one prerequisite for understanding the biology of AIDS and its treatment with antiviral drugs. The pair's work in the early 1980s made it possible to study the virus closely. It allowed scientists to identify important details in how HIV replicates and how it interacts with the cells it infects. It also led to ways to diagnose infected people and to screen blood for HIV, which has limited spread of the epidemic, and helped scientists develop anti-HIV drugs.

The French pair were embroiled in a heated debate throughout the 1980's with Dr. Robert Gallo. Gallo's dispute with Montagnier reached such a level in 1987 that the heads of State, Reagan and Chirac signed an agreement dividing millions of dollars in royalties from the AIDS blood test based on the two researchers' findings.

In the 1990s, however, the U.S. government acknowledged that the French deserved a greater share of the royalties. The admission solidified the French position that Montagnier had isolated the virus in 1983, a year before Gallo.

The press release for the announcement of the Medicine Prize is here.

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