Tuesday, October 07, 2008


If you knew little about the Nobel prizes, you could be easily forgiven for assuming that somebody must have already won the Nobel for discovering the AIDS virus. Many people probably do assume this. It just seems hard that such an important discovery has not already been recognized by the prize.

And yet, those who know the history know about the acrimonious dispute between Frenchman Luc Montagnier and American Robert Gallo about priority. The two were involved in a protracted and cantankerous debate with both camps claiming that they were the ones who discovered HIV and demonstrated its action. When I read the history, to me it was always clear that it was Montagnier whose team not only undoubtedly first isolated the virus, but actually proved that HIV causes AIDS, an absolutely crucial step in establishing the identity of a causative agent and a diagnostic step for the disease. While Gallo also played an important role in the latter, the history also indicated to me that he had engaged in some pretty cunning and disingenuous political manipulation to claim priority for the discovery.

It didn't really seem that the prize would be awarded to both of them. It may well have not been awarded to any of them. The Nobel committee usually steers clear of controversial people and topics. But it seems to have realized that it can no longer neglect the truly important people behind such an obviously groundbreaking discovery. So Luc Montaginer, along with Francois-Barre Sinoussi have finally been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Barre-Sinoussi first isolated HIV. The committee clearly is trying to avoid controversy by specifically saying that the prize is for discovering HIV. Even Gallo should not have a problem conceding that it was Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi who first saw and isolated the virus.

The other half deservedly goes to Harald Zur Hausen, discoverer of the human papilloma virus which causes cervical cancer.

I would recommend reading Virus, Montagnier's story of his life and his work.

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