Monday, November 3, 2008
The award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to the two French scientists who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and to the German who discovered the human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer cannot be faulted. But it has nevertheless thrown up a surprise. While there is now little doubt that the French scientists — Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi — are the real discoverers of HIV, the Nobel committee’s announcement can be seen as giving a quietus to the controversy over the claim of the American scientist Robert Gallo that he was the real discoverer. In fact, the investigations carried out a few years after the dispute became bitter proved beyond doubt that the viruses Gallo studied were really the ones supplied by Montagnier. Yet Gallo, despite his overreaching claim, was responsible for many seminal contributions that followed confirmation a year later that it is HIV infection that causes AIDS, and the fundamental discoveries about the genes of the virus and how it enters human cells. Deviating from the usual norm of recognising the most important contributors, this year’s award has quite surprisingly ignored Gallo’s work. And this is made all the more obvious as the citation makes only a passing mention of his work.
One can only surmise that Gallo’s vain attempt to take credit for a discovery that was not truly his could have been one of the factors behind the Nobel committee ignoring him. Gallo did acknowledge that he was “disappointed” to be left out. But there is something more than disappointment that will haunt him. He has been quoted as saying by the Science journal that “the only thing I worry about is that it may give people the notion that I might have done something wrong.” Professor Bertil Fredholm, the chair of the Nobel committee, has tried to clear the air by stating that the decision was based purely on who had initially discovered the virus. One thing is for sure: this year’s prize will be remembered more for the committee overlooking Gallo’s contributions than for its recognition of the scientists whose discoveries of HIV and HPV have saved millions of lives. The discovery of tests to identify these two diseases, and medicines to treat those infected with HIV came about quite quickly. But unlike in the case of vaccines to prevent the two predominant HPV subtypes that are responsible for about 70 per cent of cervical cancer worldwide, the quest for a preventive or therapeutic vaccine for HIV/AIDS has proved to be elusive so far. Currently, there is no vaccine that is at an advanced stage of human clinical trial.