German professor Harald zur Hausen won half the prize for his discovery that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer -- a discovery that eventually led to a vaccine against the second-most common cancer in women.
The second half of the prize -- for identifying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS -- has fanned the flames of a two-decade-old scientific controversy. The prize went to French researchers Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who published a paper in Science in 1983 describing a virus found in a patient who had died of AIDS. They named the virus lymphadenopathy-associated virus; it was renamed HIV in 1986.
But another researcher working simultaneously, American Robert Gallo, identified a similar virus and published his work in 1984; he later proved the critical point that HIV causes AIDS. Adding to the complication, he was later accused of scientific misconduct by the National Academy of Sciences for improperly using samples from the French lab, but those charges were overturned on appeal.
The ongoing dispute over who deserved credit for the discovery eventually led to a legal and diplomatic dispute between France and the U.S., and eventually concluded with the scientists agreeing to share credit .
However, the Nobel committee decided Monday to award the prize to the French researchers alone.
"We gave the prize for the discovery of the virus. The two to whom we gave the prize, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, discovered the virus," Hans Joernvall of the Nobel Assembly told Agence France-Presse, though he acknowledged that Gallo had done "a lot of other work in the field."
Barre-Sinoussi told the London Times: "It is a conflict to be forgotten. It is also true that American teams were important in the discovery of the virus, and that should be recognized."
Montagnier dedicated his award to victims of AIDS, and predicted a therapeutic, though not preventive, AIDS vaccine would be developed in the next four years, according to Agence France-Presse.
"I think my first reaction is to think of all the people sick with AIDS and all those who are still alive and fighting against the illness," he told AFP.
In contrast to the HIV-discovery prize, zur Hausen's prize for identifying HPV as the cause of cervical cancer is not controversial. He first speculated in 1974 that HPV might cause cervical cancer, according to Scientific American. That idea went against the prevailing theories of the day, but nine years later he proved that one strain of the virus, HPV 16, was present in 53 percent of cervical cancers. One year after that, he discovered a different strain responsible for another 17 to 23 percent of cases.
"I'm not prepared for this," zur Hausen, 72, told the London Times. "We're drinking a little glass of bubbly right now."
Others said the prize was well deserved.
"His discovery has led to much understanding about HPV, cervical cancer screening and the primary prevention of some cervical cancers," Diane Harper, who worked on the cervical cancer vaccine at Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, told Scientific American.