Media Centre - IARC News

Nobel Prize shared by French and German scientists

Professor zur Hausen with the IARC Monographs Working Group on Papillomaviruses, February 2005
07 OCTOBER 2008 -- Two French scientists, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, recognised for their work in uncovering the AIDS virus, and a German virologist, who uncovered the papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, were jointly awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine today, Monday 6 October, 2008.

Professor Harald zur Hausen, now Professor Emeritus at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) was recognised for research based on his idea that oncogenic human papillomavirus, or HPV, caused cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in women.

Zur Hausen, who started his research in the 1970s, assumed that if HPV was causing cervical cancer it should be possible to detect it by searching tumor cells for a specific viral DNA.

For 10 years, he searched for different types of human papillomavirus, detecting them in cervix cancer biopsies. The virus types he found, and later cloned, are found in about 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies around the world.

"More than 5 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by persistent infection with this virus," the Nobel assembly was quoted as saying.

“An estimated 500,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year and about 300,000 die from it, mostly in the developing world. Much remains to be done for preventing the disease, but the development of HPV vaccination against the types of HPV responsible for the majority of cervix cancer world-wide is a huge step in the right direction. This development owes a great deal to the pioneering work of Professor zur Hausen and has significant positive implications for humanity,” said Dr Peter Boyle, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.