The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been split between the discoverers of two viruses of major pathophysiological importance.
Half of the prize goes to German Dr prof Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of human papilloma virus as the cause of cervical cancer while the other half went to the French team that discovered human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Françoise Barr´-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier.
Just a few early thoughts: Notably absent from the award is American Robert Gallo, whose role in the HIV discovery has been long disputed. That this Nobel can only be awarded to a sum total of three individuals means that the committee chose to honor zur Hausen’s seminal work on HPV rather than acknowledge Gallo’s questionable role on HIV (ouch!). (note added: Perhaps I’m being a little harsh as Gallo and Montagnier acknowledged the roles of each group in Science in 2002; Montagnier cited the crucial contribution of Gallo’s group as the use of a the T-cell growth factor, now known as interleukin-2, for short-term virally-infected cultures. I’m very interested to hear how Montagnier comments on this obvious issue today.)
I will also be interested to see how the HIV-denialist community chooses to spin this award acknowledging the importance of the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS. I do not believe that the Nobel Foundation is beholden to Big Pharma or receives proceeds from the sales of HIV diagnostics or HIV therapeutics.
Lastly, I am simply tickled to see Dr zur Hausen recognized for the HPV work, of which much of the early work was conducted with HeLa cells. HeLa is a well-known human cervical carcinoma cell line first isolated at Johns Hopkins from an African-American woman from Virginia with cervical cancer. The engaging story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells has been the focus of writings by Rebecca Skloot (PDF of 2001 NYT article) and will be compiled in her upcoming book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Congratulations to the professors on these outstanding accomplishments.