Viral-based Human Disease and the Nobel Prize for Medicine

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nobel medal in medicineThe 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced earlier this week. The prize was awarded to three europeans for the discoveries of two viruses that cause severe human disease; the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Two French scientists, Luc Montagnier, age 76, at the University of Paris in Paris, France and Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, age 61, at the Institut Pasteur in Garches, France will split half the prize for their discovery of the HIV virus. Barré-Sinoussi is the 8th woman to receive the Nobel award for Physiology or Medicine.

A German researcher, Harald zur Hausen, age 72, at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany, will receive the other half of the $1.3 million prize for establishing that most cervical cancers are caused by two types of human papilloma virus.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

The HIV virus was identified in cultured lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) from a patient with swollen lymph nodes, characteristic of the early stage of acquired immune deficiency [1]. While most oncogenic retroviruses induce cell growth, the HIV virus instead mediates cell fusion of T lymphocytes, impairing the immune system. A member of the lentivirus group, HIV RNA is converted to DNA and integrated into the T lymphocyte genome. The virus effectively evades the host immune system by continually changing and moving its genome from one location to another.

By 1984, Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi had obtained several isolates of the HIV retrovirus from sexually infected individuals, haemophiliacs, mother to infant transmissions and transfused patients. According to the Nobel committee, the discovery of the HIV virus made possible the rapid cloning of the HIV-1 genome that [2]:

… has allowed unravelling of important details of its replication cycle and how the virus interacts with its host. This led quickly to the development of diagnostic tools for identification of patients and screening of blood products, which has limited the spread of the pandemic.

Soon after the discovery of HIV, several groups presented evidence that HIV causes acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases provides a comprehensive summary on The Evidence that HIV causes AIDS.

The CDC estimates that 1.1 million U.S. adults and adolescents were living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV infection at the end of 2006 [3]. For additional information on HIV prevention research and surveillance and the development of effective biomedical interventions to reduce transmission and HIV disease progression, see the CDC HIV/AIDS page.

The human papilloma virus (HPV)

HPV is a group of viruses that includes more than 100 strains or types. More than 30 types are sexually transmitted and can infect the genital area of men and women. In the 1970s, Harald zur Hausen postulated a role for HPV in cervical cancer [4-5]. Almost 10 years later, he identified human papillomavirus types 16 and 18 in two different human cervical carcinomas [6]. Since then, HPV16 and HPV18 have been found in ~70% of cervical cancers [7-8].

Sexually transmitted genital HPV infections are very common. Most occur without any symptoms and, over the course of a few years, go away without treatment [8]. However, some HPV infections persist for many years and are the primary cause of cervical cancer.

For additional information on HPV, including fact sheets, statistics, treatment guidelines and resources for clinicians and educators, see the CDC HPV – STD page. The National Cancer Institute also provides an informative fact sheet on the human papillomaviruses and cancer.


  1. Barre-Sinoussi et al. Isolation of a T-lymphotropic retrovirus from a patient at risk for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Science. 1983 May 20;220(4599):868-71.
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  2. Advanced Information — The discoveries of human papilloma viruses that cause cervical cancer and of human immunodeficiency virus . The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIV prevalence estimates–United States, 2006. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2008 Oct 3;57(39):1073-6.
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  4. zur Hausen H et al. Human papilloma viruses and cancer. Bibl Haematol. 1975 Oct;(43):569-71.
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  5. zur Hausen H. Human papillomaviruses and their possible role in squamous cell carcinomas. Curr Top Microbiol Immunol. 1977;78:1-30.
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  6. Gissmann et al. Presence of human papillomavirus in genital tumors. J Invest Dermatol. 1984 Jul;83(1 Suppl):26s-28s.
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  7. Munoz et al. Against which human papillomavirus types shall we vaccinate and screen? The international perspective. Int J Cancer. 2004 Aug 20;111(2):278-85.
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  8. Schiffman et al. Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. Lancet. 2007 Sep 8;370(9590):890-907.
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About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.