By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Two French researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize yesterday for discovering the AIDS virus, bypassing an American researcher now at the University of Maryland who played a key role in the historic feat.
Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their 1983 identification of what was later named the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The pair split the $1.4 million prize with Harald zur Hausen of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, who discovered that another virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV), causes cervical cancer.
Excluded from the prize was Robert C. Gallo, who for years was locked in a bitter dispute with Montagnier over credit for the discovery of HIV, based on work he did at the National Cancer Institute.
Montagnier and Gallo battled in the 1980s over who was the first to do the crucial work that led to identification of the virus, at a time when debate raged over what was causing the devastating disease. Beyond who should get the credit, millions of dollars were at stake from fees for blood tests.
President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac eventually signed an agreement in 1987 that divided the royalties equally, and Gallo and Montagnier in 2003 published a paper together in the New England Journal of Medicine acknowledging each other's work.
It is the first time a Nobel Prize has been awarded for research related to AIDS, a pandemic that has killed more than 25 million people worldwide since it was first recognized in 1981. An additional 33 million are currently living with HIV.
The prize's rules limit the number of scientists who can share the award to three. Hans Jornvall, secretary of the committee that decided the award at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, made it clear that the panel felt that Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi deserved sole credit because in 1983 they published the first papers identifying the virus, in the journal Science.
"We think the two that we named are the discoverers of the virus," Jornvall said in a telephone interview. "If you look at the initial papers on the publication of the discovery, you will find those who discovered it. "
Jornvall praised Gallo's work but said the committee based its decision on the fact that the French researchers published their work first.
"Dr. Gallo is an excellent person and has meant very much for science, but there are many people who are excellent and do very much for science," Jornvall said. "We named the three people we consider to be the discoverers of the viruses we named."
Other researchers said that Montagnier, now at the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, and Barré-Sinoussi, of the Pasteur Institute, both in Paris, clearly deserved the prize but that it was disappointing that Gallo was left out.
"Gallo deserves enormous credit," said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "It's a shame you can't give it to four people, because Gallo's contributions were enormous."
In a written statement, Gallo congratulated the winners, adding that he was "gratified" Montagnier had acknowledged that he was "equally deserving."
"I am pleased that the Nobel Committee chose to recognize the importance of AIDS with these awards and I am proud that my colleagues and I continue to search for an AIDS vaccine," Gallo said.
In a statement, John E. Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, praised Gallo's contributions, including the identification of growth factors that enabled scientists such as Montagnier to grow cells in the laboratory needed to isolate the virus. Niederhuber also noted that Gallo's work was crucial for the development of the blood test for the virus.
"While we are pleased that two scientists who contributed so much to AIDS research were recognized today, I am extremely disappointed that the NCI and all of the resources it brought to bear on the discovery of the AIDS virus -- along with the technology to make blood banking safe and the drugs that have made AIDS a chronic disease -- weren't, in some fashion, recognized," Niederhuber said.
Fauci noted that Gallo subsequently published work that definitively established HIV as the cause of AIDS.
"He made the incontrovertible link between the virus and disease," Fauci said.
In announcing the award, the Nobel committee said Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi's initial discovery led to a series of crucial advances, including deciphering how the virus reproduces and infects cells and the development of the blood test and of powerful antiviral drugs that have helped contain the spread of the virus and reduce the death toll.
"The combination of prevention and treatment has substantially decreased spread of the disease and dramatically increased life expectancy among treated patients," the committee said. "Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity."
Montagnier, 76, who was attending an AIDS meeting in Africa, and Barré-Sinoussi, 61, who was doing research in Cambodia, both said they were pleased in interviews posted on the Nobel committee's Web site.
"Even after 20 years we are still fighting this virus," Montagnier said. "My message is that we should continue the research."
Montagnier said he was surprised that Gallo was not included in the list of winners. "There is no doubt that my American colleague's contribution has been important for showing the virus was the cause of AIDS," Montagnier said in a telephone interview.
The committee also praised zur Hausen's work, saying he "went against current dogma" when he proposed that HPV causes cervical cancer, the second-most-common cancer among women and the most common sexually transmitted agent. Among other things, the work led to development of vaccines against strains of the virus.
"The global public health burden attributable to human papillomaviruses is considerable," the committee said.
"I'm, of course, totally surprised. It's . . . a great pleasure for me," zur Hausen, 72, said in an interview posted on the committee's Web site.