Monday, October 6, 2008

Nobel goes to French, Gallo "snubbed"

My Science colleagues Martin Enserink and Jon Cohen report on the Nobel prizes for medicine announced today, which went to Luc Montagnier (photo at right or top, depending on your browser) and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for the discovery of HIV, and Harald zur Hausen, who found that the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a cause of cervical cancer. But as Martin and Jon point out, the prize is a "snub" to Robert Gallo (photo on left or bottom, depending on your browser), whose lab went on to prove that HIV causes AIDS and also successfully grew the virus in continuous culture. I won't go into all the details of the French-American war over credit for the isolation of HIV, which raged during the 1980s but is now of more historic interest than anything else. But a few details from their ScienceNOW story might be of interest (the link is free for 4 weeks from today):

The Nobel committee credits Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi for first isolating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from a French patient with swollen lymph nodes. The researchers also detected activity of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, proof that the infectious agent belonged to a group called retroviruses, which insert their own DNA into the genome of the hosts.

But Montagnier's lab did not prove that their virus caused AIDS. That evidence first came 1 year later from Gallo and co-workers, who published four papers in Science that persuasively tied similar viruses they had found to the disease. Gallo says all three recipients of the prize deserved it, and he's happy to see that the Nobel Assembly at long last gave an award to the HIV/AIDS field. But he acknowledged that he was "disappointed" to be left out. "Yes, I'm a little down about it, but not terribly," Gallo told Science. "The only thing I worry about is that it may give people the notion that I might have done something wrong."

Martin and Jon report on reaction from the scientific community:

The decision not to include Gallo stirred mixed emotions among the HIV/AIDS research community, in particular because his lab played a critical role in developing the technology to grow HIV in culture dishes and also subsequently made fundamental discoveries about the genes of the virus and how it enters cells. "I am sad that Bob was left out," says Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who does HIV/AIDS research himself at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "His work was critical to pinning down HIV as the cause of AIDS."

Hans Wigzell, an HIV/AIDS researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who chaired the Nobel committee for physiology or medicine from 1990 to 1992, says he's "always surprised" by the award decisions, but that panel members take seriously Alfred Nobel's original wishes. "They follow in a very strict sense the will of the donor in the sense that it should be given to a discovery," say Wigzell. "They never give it for lifetime achievement, and that, by many in the scientific society, is considered to be unfair."

The article quotes Montagnier as saying that he felt badly for Gallo, and indeed in recent years the two had called a truce on the HIV wars:

Gallo and Montagnier had a rapprochement in the late 1990s that culminated in each writing essays in Science in 2002 in which they concluded that both made important contributions to the discovery of the virus. "Over the past 20 years, the scientific and legal controversies between our team and Gallo's group have faded," Montagnier wrote. The essays were seen by some as a way to prepare the ground for a shared, controversy-free Nobel award. Yet, "the protagonists don't get to write history themselves," says Pasteur researcher Simon Wain-Hobson.

Photos: Wikimedia Photos by Commons-User Túrelio, licensed under CC-by-sa-2.0-de

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