Nobel Winners 2008 BBC

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2008

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“for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer”

“for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus”

Harald zur Hausen, 1/2 of the prize

Born: 1936

Birthplace: Germany

Nationality: German citizen

Current position:

Professor Emeritus and

former Chairman and

Scientific Director, German

Cancer Research Centre,

Heidelberg, Germany

Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, 1/4 of the prize

Born: 1947

Birthplace: France

Nationality: French citizen

Current position:

Professor and Director,

Regulation of Retroviral

Infections Unit, Virology

Department, Institut

Pasteur, Paris, France

Luc Montagnier, 1/4 of the prize

Born: 1932

Birthplace: France

Nationality: French citizen

Current position:

Professor Emeritus and

Director, World Foundation

for AIDS Research and

Prevention, Paris, France


Looking back over the two discoveries rewarded with the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine reveals two different timelines for discovery research. One, Harald zur Hausen’s realisation that subtypes of a virus that produces harmless warts can also lead to cervical cancer, took a decade of work to prove, initially against a backdrop of considerable scepticism. The other, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier’s identification of the virus associated with AIDS, occurred within just a few months amid a flurry of global research activity directed towards finding the cause of the then-new epidemic. Harald zur Hausen’s suggestion that human papilloma

virus (HPV) infection might lie behind cervical cancer flew in the face of general opinion in the early 1970s, which held that another commonly present virus, herpes simplex virus, might be the cause. Realising that there were a multitude of different HPV subtypes, and hypothesising that unknown subtypes might cause the cancer, zur Hausen’s group began a painstaking search for such novel viruses.

By the early 1980s they found novel viruses in genital warts. Their subsequent identification of two novel HPV subtypes in cervical cancers formed the essential piece of evidence linking HPV infection to the onset of the disease. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier’s discovery of the virus that later came to be known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) occurred just two years after the first reports of cases of what we now know as AIDS. An infective agent was suspected by many to cause the disease, and Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier decided to test whether it might be a so-called retrovirus. Retroviruses are relatively uncommon among the viruses that infect humans and rely on the host’s cellular machinery to replicate their RNA. The gamble proved correct; their studies revealed retroviral activity in cells taken from a patient’s lymph nodes, and demonstrated that viral particles from these cells could infect and kill white blood cells. Within the year, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier had isolated HIV from several patient groups. Soon afterwards several research groups provided convincing evidence that showed HIV to be the cause of AIDS. Identifying the viral culprits behind two human diseases that impact greatly on global health provided crucial insights into the workings of each virus, which, in turn, led to the development of much-needed treatments. zur  Hausen’s discoveries enabled the development of vaccines that provide protection from the two HPV subtypes found in the majority of cervical cancer cases. Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier’s discoveries led to a greater understanding of HIV and the way it interacts with humans, allowing the development of diagnostic tools and a range of antiviral drugs aimed at controlling HIV, and with it providing hope that the disease could eventually become treatable.


Documentary Description

A five parts documentary about the laureates in the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economics and Literature


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