October 06, 2008

Nobel season '08: Physiology or Medicine

The Nobel season is upon us! Starting today with the announcement of the physiology or medicine laureates. This year's prize goes to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus HIV, and to Harald zur Hausen for the discovery of the human papilloma virus HPV causing cervical cancer. Today over 30 million people live with AIDS and roughly half a million women battle cervical cancer (of which nearly all cases involve HPV infection). Rarely has a Nobel prize winning discovery directly affected the lives of so many and addressed such a current problem.

Their social impact aside, these discoveries were decisive in our understanding of the complex molecular interactions between viruses and their hosts, of the causative agency of viruses in human disease, of how viral diseases spread and of their ecology and evolution. Even of how our genomes work: The replication of both HPV and HIV involves complex genomic interaction between the virus genomes and the host genomes.

HIV replicates by inserting its genome into the genomes of lymphocytes and "fooling" the cell's own molecular factory to produce more virus particles, to the ultimate bane of the host cell. HPV is a different kind of virus, but one of the major discoveries made by zur Hausen is that parts of the HPV DNA does become integrated in the host genome and is expressed in the cervical tumors. So further insight into the complex genomic mechanisms that are behind HIV replication and HPV pathogenesis will undoubtedly help reduce the fatalities from the AIDS pandemic and from cervical cancer, but it will also let us know a bit more about what it is genomes are capable of doing.

Very worthy recipients in a very interesting and relevant field.

Here's a more detailed summary from the advanced information published on the Nobel website.

Professor Harald zur Hausen, emeritus Scientific Director and Chairman of the Management Board of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, has made seminal observations that identify novel human papilloma viruses as key contributors to cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women. Professor zur Hausen's discoveries include detection of novel human papilloma virus types, isolation of the human papilloma virus types 16 and 18 genomes, and expression of specific papilloma virus DNA genes integrated into the tumour host cell genome. These findings have led to an understanding of cervical carcinogenesis, a characterization of the natural history of the human papilloma virus infection, and paved the way for the development of preventive vaccines.

Professor Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, director of the "Regulation of Retroviral Infections" Unit, Virology department at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, and Professor Luc Montagnier, President of the World Foundation for Aids Research and Prevention, Paris, discovered human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1), the first human lentivirus. They characterized the virus based on its morphological, biochemical and immunological properties and demonstrated the capacity to induce massive virus replication and cell damage to lymphocytes. The initial discovery of Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier was a basis for subsequent identification of this virus as the aetiological agent of acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The discovery has led to epidemiologic surveys, tracing of the origin of HIV-1, identification of novel steps in the retroviral replicative cycle and generation of therapeutic as well as prophylactic options.

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  1. This is exactly why I have a secret crush on the prize in medicine: I usually haven't the slightest clue beforehand what discovery might be rewarded, but it is often something that after the fact is both obvious, easy to relate to and extremely interesting in its own right. This years prize is an excellent case in point on all accounts. Thanks for a very nice and initiated account of the research being rewarded! A very interesting read indeed.

  2. Glad you appreciated it. :)

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