STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Two French scientists who discovered the AIDS virus and a German who bucked conventional wisdom to find a virus that causes cervical cancer were awarded the 2008 Nobel prize for medicine on Monday.
Luc Montagnier, director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi of the Institut Pasteur won half the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) for discovering the virus that has killed 25 million people since it was identified in the 1980s.
Dr. Harald zur Hausen of the University of Duesseldorf and a former director of the German Cancer Research Center shared the other half of the prize for work that went against the established opinion about the cause of cervical cancer.
“The three laureates have discovered two new viruses of great importance and the result of that has led to an improved global health,” said Jan Andersson, a member of the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
The discoveries made it possible to diagnose both infections, and led to the development of two vaccines that prevent cervical cancer, and more than 20 drugs that can keep HIV patients healthy.
But Montagnier said those who most need the diagnosis and treatments for AIDS are not getting either.
“It’s Africa which is carrying the weight of the epidemic at this moment. Out of millions of people infected, a large number are not being treated, either because they don’t have access to treatment or because they don’t know they are infected,” Montagnier told Reuters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he was giving a lecture.
The award is a decisive vote for Montagnier in a long-running dispute over who discovered and identified the virus, Montagnier or Dr. Robert Gallo, then of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
“There was no doubt as to who made the fundamental discoveries,” Nobel Assembly member Maria Masucci told Reuters.
Zur Hausen was recognized for finding that the human papilloma virus, or HPV, caused cervical cancer.
“More than 5 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by persistent infection with this virus,” the Nobel committee said. The virus, which infects at least half of all sexually active adults, can also cause genital warts, cancer of the penis and other genitalia.
The German scientist, who began his research in the 1970s, searched for different HPV types, detecting them in 70 percent of cervical tumor samples from around the world.
An estimated 500,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year and about 300,000 die from it, mostly in the developing world.
Zur Hausen said he thought more cancers would be linked to viruses. “I suspect there will be more in the future,” he said in a telephone interview.
GlaxoSmithKline and Merck and Co. have developed vaccines against HPV — which are controversial because to be effective the series of costly shots must be given to girls before they begin sexual activity.
Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievement in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel.
The Nobel laureate for physics will be announced on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in Oslo.
(Additional reporting by Adam Cox, Elinor Schang and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Maggie Fox in Washington, Michael Kahn in London; Brian Rohan in Paris, and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan)
Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh