The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2008
This year's Nobel Prize awards discoveries of two viruses causing severe human diseases.
Harald zur Hausen went against current dogma and postulated that oncogenic human papilloma virus (HPV) caused cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. He realized that HPV-DNA could exist in a non-productive state in the tumours, and should be detectable by specific searches for viral DNA. He found HPV to be a heterogeneous family of viruses. Only some HPV types cause cancer. His discovery has led to characterization of the natural history of HPV infection, an understanding of mechanisms of HPV-induced carcinogenesis and the development of prophylactic vaccines against HPV acquisition.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier discovered human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Virus production was identified in lymphocytes from patients with enlarged lymph nodes in early stages of acquired immunodeficiency, and in blood from patients with late stage disease. They characterized this retrovirus as the first known human lentivirus based on its morphological, biochemical and immunological properties. HIV impaired the immune system because of massive virus replication and cell damage to lymphocytes. The discovery was one prerequisite for the current understanding of the biology of the disease and its antiretroviral treatment.
Importance of the HPV discovery
Harald zur Hausen demonstrated novel properties of HPV that have led to an understanding of mechanisms for papilloma virus-induced carcinogenesis and the predisposing factors for viral persistence and cellular transformation. He made HPV16 and 18 available to the scientific community. Vaccines were ultimately developed that provide ≥95 % protection from infection by the high risk HPV16 and 18 types. The vaccines may also reduce the need for surgery and the global burden of cervical cancer.
Importance of the HIV discovery
Identification of virus-host interactions has provided information on how HIV evades the host's immune system by impairing lymphocyte function, by constantly changing and by hiding its genome in the host lymphocyte DNA, making its eradication in the infected host difficult even after long-term antiviral treatment. Extensive knowledge about these unique viral host interactions has, however, generated results that can provide ideas for future vaccine development as well as for therapeutic approaches targeting viral latency.
HIV has generated a novel pandemic. Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity. Successful anti-retroviral therapy results in life expectancies for persons with HIV infection now reaching levels similar to those of uninfected people.