Harald zur Hausen (born March 11, 1936 in Gelsenkirchen, Province of Westphalia) is a German virologist and professor emeritus. He has done research on cancer of the cervix, where he discovered the role of papilloma viruses, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008.
Zur Hausen was born in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, went to the Gymnasium in Vechta, and studied medicine at the Universities of Bonn, Hamburg and Düsseldorf and received a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1960 from the University of Düsseldorf, after which he became a medical assistant.
Two years later, he joined the Institute for Microbiology at the University of Düsseldorf as a laboratory assistant. After three and a half years, he moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Virus Laboratories of the Children's Hospital together with the famous husband and wife virologists, Werner and Gertrude Henle, who had to escape from Nazi Germany. In a ground-breaking study, he contributed to finding for the first time that a cancer virus (Epstein-Barr virus) can transform healthy cells (lymphocytes) into cancer cells. This directly showed that viruses can cause cancer cell formation. He became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1969, he became a regular teaching and researching professor at the University of Würzburg, where he worked at the Institute for Virology. In 1972, he moved to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In 1977, he moved on to the University of Freiburg (Breisgau), where he headed the department of virology and hygiene. Working with Lutz Gissmann, zur Hausen first isolated human papillomavirus 6 by simple centrifugation from genital warts. Together with Ethel-Michelle de Villiers, who would marry zur Hausen after his divorce from his first wife, this group isolated HPV 6 DNA from genital warts, suggesting a possible new way of identifying viruses in human tumors. This paid off several years later in 1983 when zur Hausen identified HPV 16 DNA in cervical cancer tumors by Southern blot hybridization. This was followed by discovery of HPV18 a year later, thus identifying the culprits responsible for ~75% of human cervical cancer. This sparked a major scientific controversy with other scientists favoring herpes simplex as a cause for cervical cancer.
From 1983 until 2003 zur Hausen served as a chairman and member of the scientific advisory board of the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ in German) in Heidelberg and professor of medicine at the University of Heidelberg. He also is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Cancer. He is author of the book Infections Causing Human Cancer from 2006. On January 1, 2010 zur Hausen became the president of the German Cancer Aid, the leading organization fighting cancer in Europe. It was founded by doctor Mildred Scheel, the late “First Lady” of Germany. Zur Hausen has three sons from his first wife.
Zur Hausen's specific field of research is the study of oncoviruses. In 1976, he published the hypothesis that human papillomavirus plays an important role in the cause of cervical cancer. Together with his collaborators, he then identified HPV16 and HPV18 in cervical cancers in 1983-4. This research directly made possible the development of a vaccine which was introduced in 2006. See also HPV vaccine. He is also credited with discovery of the virus causing genital warts (HPV 6) and a monkey lymphotropic polyomavirus that is a close relative to a recently discovered human Merkel cell polyomavirus, as well as techniques to immortalize cells with Epstein-Barr virus and to induce replication of the virus using phorbol esters. His work on papillomaviruses and cervical cancer received a great deal of scientific criticism on initial unveiling but subsequently was confirmed and extended to other high-risk papillomaviruses.
He received the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 2008 for his contributions to medical science. He also shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus.
There was controversy over the 2008 Nobel when it was learned that Bo Angelin, a member of the Nobel Assembly that year, also sat on the board of AstraZeneca, a company which earns patent royalties for HPV vaccines. This was exacerbated by the fact that AstraZeneca had also entered into a partnership with Nobel Web and Nobel Media to sponsor documentaries and lectures to increase awareness of the prize. However, colleagues widely felt that the award was deserved, and the secretary of the Nobel Committee and Assembly made a statement that at the time of the vote, Bo Angelin did not know of AstraZeneca's HPV vaccine patents.
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