In a snub to one of the world’s most famous virologists, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, announced today that it has awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the Pasteur Institute in Paris for their discovery of the virus that causes AIDS. The decision passes over Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, with whom Montagnier had a long-running battle over both credit for the AIDS virus’s discovery and the patents related to the test used to detect the virus in blood.
Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi together receive half of the $1.4 million award; the other half goes to German virologist Harald zur Hausen for finding that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. Although the HPV discovery ultimately led to two recently approved cancer vaccines now being widely introduced in developed countries, zur Hausen’s prize has been overshadowed by the controversial choice of his fellow laureates.
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.”
“I’m very sorry for Robert Gallo,” Montagnier told Science today from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where he is attending an HIV meeting. Montagnier says he was “surprised” as well: “It was important to prove that HIV was the cause of AIDS, and Gallo had a very important role in that.” Gallo, who was famously competitive with Montagnier and other labs during the race to find the cause of AIDS, also stressed that he’s mellowed a lot. “Twenty-five years ago, I’d be stuttering and saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ As long as everything is not taken away from my legacy, that’s fundamentally what matters to me.”