Nobel Prize In Medicine For Major Virus Discoveries The 2008 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine goes to two French scientists for discovering the virus that causes AIDS. A German researcher shares the prize for discovering the viruses that cause cervical cancer.
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Nobel Prize In Medicine For Major Virus Discoveries

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Nobel Prize In Medicine For Major Virus Discoveries

Nobel Prize In Medicine For Major Virus Discoveries

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Let's get up to date now on this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It goes to scientists who made a couple of separate discoveries about the ways that viruses cause serious illnesses. Those illnesses are AIDS and cancer of the cervix. We're going to get more now from NPR's Richard Knox who's covering the announcement. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD KNOX: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Now let's start with these two French scientists who won for their work on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. What did they learn that hadn't been learned?

KNOX: Well, there were two groups, one in France and one in America, who both claimed to discover the AIDS virus back in the early '80s. The French team, Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, got the virus out of lymph nodes that they took from an AIDS patient. And Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda published papers saying that his team had discovered the AIDS virus. And the dispute went on for years. A lot was at stake. Among the issues was that - who gets royalties for the blood tests that were made possible by these discoveries.

INSKEEP: Are you saying here that by awarding this to the French scientists, and not the American, then Richard Knox, the Nobel committee is basically saying that in this dispute it's the French scientists who actually made the discovery first and who deserve credit for it?

KNOX: The Nobel Committee has settled that controversy in probably the most definitive way. They seem to have accepted an investigation that was done about 15 years ago which looked at the viruses from both labs and concluded that they were in fact the same virus. And what happened, apparently, was that the French had shared a sample of the virus with the Americans, and the French sample accidentally got into a laboratory dish that Bob Gallo was using to grow the virus. And it's a common problem in labs. It's a question of contamination. But in fact the French discovered the virus.

INSKEEP: And I suppose it's worth mentioning here that, setting aside the controversy, this is a discovery that shaped our understanding of much of what's happened in the world for the past couple of decades or more. This is one of the worst epidemics on record.

KNOX: It is. And it's clearly - I mean, I think it was only a matter of time in most scientists' view that the Nobel Committee would award a prize for the discovery of the AIDS virus. It's just a gargantuan public health problem, probably unprecedented. And certainly nothing like it has happened in terms of public impact on people around the world since the flu pandemic of 1918.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have two French scientists, each winning, as I understand it, one quarter of a Nobel Prize. Between them they get half of a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Who gets the other half of the prize money?

KNOX: The other half goes to a German scientist, Harald Zur Hausen. And he did a long series of experiments beginning in the 1970s that established there's a whole variety of - whole family viruses called human papilloma viruses that, in fact, some of which cause cancer of the cervix. And that was an important discovery about the long-disputed notion of whether viruses could cause cancer.

INSKEEP: Well, now is this the discovery then that led to the vaccine that many women now take for cancer of the cervix?

KNOX: Indeed, yeah, it really paved the way for that vaccine. And you know, it's a vaccine that's very effective. It provides at least 95 percent protection against cervical cancer. And this is really the first time that anybody has made a vaccine that demonstrably protects against cancer. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This was the first vaccine DESIGNED to prevent cancer. For more than 25 years, the hepatitis B vaccine — developed to prevent hepatitis — has had the effect of protecting against liver cancer.]

INSKEEP: OK. So three people then share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. How much do they split?

KNOX: The total is 1.3 million dollars these days, and Professor Zur Hausen gets 650,000 and the French get about 325,000 apiece. But the prestige, of course, is priceless.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Knox. Thanks very much.

KNOX: You're welcome.

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