The winners of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine have been announced, and the prize has been awarded for early discoveries that have subsequently led to vaccines or treatments of two widespread virus-caused diseases. Half of the prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer” and one-fourth each was awarded to Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” For more, check out the official press release or the more detailed description of the prize-winning discoveries from the Nobel Committee.
This is an interesting subject for a Nobel Prize, since a huge number of scientists have contributed to the basic and applied research on HIV and HPV, leading to several significant clinical successes. The committee could have taken this in a few different directions, but they decided in both cases to give the award to just the scientists who made the initial discoveries: the initial descriptions of HIV and the identification of HPV as the predominant cause of cervical cancer. Thanks to the discoveries of Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier (and an enormous quantity of research by a wide range of scientists that followed them), patients infected with HIV can be treated with a wide array of antiretroviral drugs that can greatly extend their lifespan and improve their quality of life. In the developed world, at least, AIDS is no longer the rapid death sentence it once was in the 1980s. Likewise, thanks to Hausen and the work that followed on his footsteps, we now have two effective vaccines for HPV–which are effectively vaccines for cervical cancer.