Throughout medical history, conventional medical wisdom held that viruses were not the cause of cancer. During the 1980s, most scientists and researchers believed the human papilloma virus (HPV) was the cause of only genital warts.
It was a German virologist, Harald zur Hausen, whose research in HPV pegged the virus as the cause of most cervical cancers.
In 1974, zur Hausen conducted a pilot study that revealed there are different types of HPV. He found that the DNA from one of them, HPV-16, was present in 50 percent of cervical cancer biopsies, while another, HPV-18, was found in 20 percent of such biopsies.
As a result of these discoveries, zur Hausen shared the 2008 Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology with Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, French researchers who discovered the AIDS virus.
Zur Hausen’s discovery led to the development of vaccines that have been found to be more than 95 percent effective in protecting women from HPV acquisition, an important step in the fight against cervical cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the vaccines Cervarix and Gardasil protect against most cervical cancers in women. Gardasil has also been shown to protect against genital warts and cancer of the anus, vagina and vulva. While both vaccines are available for women, only Gardasil is available for men as well. Each is administered in three doses. Because the vaccines offer the greatest health benefits to those who receive all three doses prior to any type of sexual activity, the CDC recommends they be administered to pre-teen girls and boys in the 11-12 age bracket.
A statement on the CDC Web site says: “HPV vaccines are recommended for all teen girls and women through age 26 who did not get all three doses of the vaccine when they were younger. HPV vaccine is recommended for all teen boys and men through age 21 who did not get all three doses of the vaccine when they were younger. The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26 if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger. All men may get the vaccine through age 26 and should ask their doctor if getting vaccinated is right for them.”
Zur Hausen, born in Germany in 1936, wrote in his autobiography that he was determined to become a scientist at a very early age. He first studied medicine, but later shifted to medical research. He came to the United States in 1966, pursuing work at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He returned to Germany in 1969 to pursue research at the Institute for Virology at the University of Wurzburg.
In 1977, he was appointed chair of the Institute of Virology at the University of Freilburg. In late 1979, zur Hausen began his pioneering work in isolating and cloning the DNA in genital warts, which led to his discoveries about HPV, which in turn led to his Nobel prize.
Zur Hausen was appointed scientific director of the German Cancer Research Center, a position he held until his retirement in 2003.
“In retrospect, I have devoted my scientific life mainly to the question to what extent infectious agents contribute to human cancer, trusting that this will contribute to novel modes of cancer prevention, diagnosis and hopefully later on to cancer therapy,” zur Hausen wrote in his autobiography.
By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer