Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Nobel Prize for Medicine

So the Nobel's have been awarded, and I thought I'd highlight, naturally enough, the Nobel Prize for Medicine. This year it has been awarded to two Frenchmen who discovered the Human Immundeficiency Virus (HIV) and to a German who discovered that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer.

At the time when HIV was discovered (1983), panic was gradually dawning within the medical community. A disease with a particular syndrome attached was surfacing in increasing numbers, but it wasn't even clear whether the causative agent was a virus or a bacterium (or neither)! The conclusive linking of the virus to the syndrome at least showed scientists what they were looking for, and provided the first real indication of what could be done about it.

Of course, discovering the virus wasn't necessarily one of science's greatest and most brilliant moments. The person who discovered human T-lymphotropic virus-II is unlikely to be honoured in the same way, if only because the disorder it causes has made less of an impact on humanity.

There is a little subtext to this award too. The discovery of HIV was, for a long time, acrimoniously contested between the French team and an American, Robert Gallo. The debate rapidly grew very heated, with both national governments getting involved. Eventually, the dispute was settled in the French's favour, but not before it emerged that Gallo's lab had used the French lab's virus samples to make their discovery. Whether this was an accident or not is still debatable, but you can read the full story here.

The definitive linking of HPV to cervical cancer was also a seminal point in medicine, and richly deserving of a Nobel prize. Cervical cancer has long been a blight upon women, but cancers are not, in general, directly caused by an infectious agent. What the discovery meant was that cervical cancer could almost be reclassified as a sexually transmitted disease! And thinking like this would eventually go on to produce things like the HPV vaccine that is so topical at the moment.

Take a look at a fuller article here.

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