The German virologist Harald zur Hausen, Nobel Prize for Medicine 2008 “for having discovered the human papilloma virus as the etiological agent of cervical cancer”, died on Sunday 28 May in Heidelberg at the age of 87. Zur Hausen was the director of the Institute of Virology of the University of Freiburg and from 1983 to 2003 scientific director and president of the German Center for Cancer Research in Heidelberg, which announced his death. The virologist has devoted particular attention to studying the links between viral infections and the development of specific types of cancer. Since the early seventies he has focused his research on the role of viruses in the onset of cervical cancer, arriving with his work team to isolate some types of Human Papillomavirus (Hpv, Human Papilloma Virus) as etiological agents of the cervical cancer.
The discovery of Harald zur Hausen, together with his subsequent research on the immunogenicity of HPV, paved the way for the development (2006) of a vaccine against the papillomavirus, whose transmission is predominantly sexual. Already awarded numerous national and international awards, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for having identified the role of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) in the onset of cervical cancer. The German virologist shared the Nobel with Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinouss, who were however awarded for the discovery of the HIV virus.
Born in Gelsenkirchen (Germany) on 11 March 1936, Harald zur Hausen He studied Medicine at the Universities of Bonn, Hamburg and Düsseldorf, obtaining his master’s degree in 1960. After his internship he worked as a researcher at the Institute of Microbiology in Düsseldorf, then in the virology laboratories of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he was later appointed adjunct professor. In 1972 he was appointed director and professor of virology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In 1977 he moved to the University of Freiburg and in 1983 he was appointed scientific director of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, a position he held for twenty years. He held several special positions, including that of President of the Organization of European Cancer Research Centers between 1993 and 1996.
Harald zur Hausen has received numerous awards: the Robert-Koch-Price, the Charles S. Mott Price of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the Federation of the European Cancer Societies Clinical Research Award, the Prince Mahidol Award in Bangkok, the Raymond Bourgine Award in Paris, the Coley-Award in New York, the Life Science Achievement Award of the American Association for Cancer Research in San Diego. He has been awarded 12 honorary doctorates. He is an elected member of various Academies (Leopoldina, Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences, Venezuela National Academy of Medicine, American Philosophical Society, Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences – USA, National Academy of Sciences, also in the USA) and has also become an honorary member of many biomedical-scientific societies.
From 2000 to 2009 zur Hausen was editor-in-chief of the “International Journal of Cancer” and at that time was a member of the Board of Directors of the International Union Against Cancer. From 2003 to 2010 he was vice president of the German National Academy for Natural Sciences and Medicine Leopoldina in Halle. The research work of Harald zur Hausen has always focused on the viral causes of cancer. In the first part of his scientific career he was interested in the role of the Epstein-Barr virus in Burkitt’s lymphomas and other tumors. In 1976 he made his important discovery: after years of research he was able to demonstrate the role of the Human Papilloma Virus (Hpv) in the etiology of cervical cancer, the second most common tumor in the world’s female population.
The results of the research conducted by Professor zur Hausen, initially received with some skepticism, have contributed to the development of diagnostic tests that can be used for the screening of cervical cancer and, more recently, of a preventive vaccine against HPV. The clinical applications of these findings are particularly relevant in terms of public health, especially in developing countries where cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women.