Select Page

Harald zur Hausen, 87, Nobel laureate who found the cause of cervical cancer, has died

Harald zur Hausen, 87, Nobel laureate who found the cause of cervical cancer, has died

dr Harald zur Hausen, a German virologist who received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that the seemingly harmless human papillomavirus known to cause warts also causes cervical cancer, died at his home in Heidelberg on May 29. Germany. He was 87.

The German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg announced his death. zur Hausen for two decades. Josef Puchta, the center’s former administrative director and longtime colleague and friend, said Dr. zur Hausen suffered a stroke in May.

dr zur Hausen’s discovery paved the way for vaccines against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can also cause other cancers, including the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and throat.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 600,000 people develop HPV-related cancer each year. Vaccination can prevent up to 90 percent of these cancers.

dr zur Hausen leaves “a great legacy”, Dr. Margaret Stanley, an HPV researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in an interview: a life-saving vaccine and life-saving tests to detect the virus.

Colleagues remembered Dr. zur Hausen as polite, considerate, and respectful — which, they noted, isn’t always a given in top-flight research labs — and more than one described him as a “gentleman.”

He was persistent in pursuing his research and could be “unshakeable” when he had an idea, said Timo Bund, a scientist at the German Cancer Research Center. dr zur Hausen’s hypothesis that HPV causes cervical cancer went against the prevailing view “almost the entire scientific world,” said Dr. Bund and took a decade to prove it.

When he first proposed this idea in the 1970s, many scientists believed that cervical cancer was caused by Herpes simplex virus. But Dr. zur Hausen could not find any signs of herpes in the biopsies of cervical cancer patients. When he presented these results at a scientific conference in 1974, he was “strongly criticized,” he recalled in an autobiographical article in the Annual Review of Virology.

dr zur Hausen was intrigued by reports that, in rare cases, genital warts could lead to cancer. He began looking for human papillomavirus DNA in cells from cervical cancer patients using a gene probe, a short piece of single-stranded DNA designed to bind to a specific sequence in the HPV genome.

The work proved challenging, partly because it became clear that there are many different types of HPV, each with its own genetic sequence, and not all cause cancer.

dr zur Hausen was undeterred. “I don’t think he ever doubted that that was right,” said Michael Boshart, a geneticist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich and a doctor of genetics. Student in the research team.

Finally, Dr. zur Hausen and his colleagues announced in 1983 that they had found a new type of HPV in cervical cancer cells. The next year they reported another. They found that about 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies contained one of these two viruses.

Other scientists soon confirmed the results. “I found some satisfaction in this situation, because up to this point several colleagues had ridiculed our research and said, ‘Everyone knows that warts and papillomaviruses are harmless,'” wrote Dr. zur Hausen in the Annual Review of Virology.

dr zur Hausen freely shared clones of the viral DNA with other researchers. “Most scientists are selfish and stick to their stuff,” said Dr. Stanley. “Because he was distributing them to the papillomavirus community, there was a real work explosion.”

This research helped accelerate scientific understanding of the virus as well as vaccine development. The first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006. Two years later, Dr. zur Hausen received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shared with the two French virologists Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who had discovered HIV.

He became a fervent supporter of the vaccine, which is highly effective but many children don’t get it. He argued that the vaccine, initially advertised primarily for girls, should also be given to boys, which health officials are now recommending.

Harald zur Hausen was born on March 11, 1936 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, the youngest of Melanie and Eduard zur Hausen’s four children. His father was an officer in the German Wehrmacht.

The industrial area where he grew up was heavily bombed during World War II. “The result was that all schools were closed at the beginning of 1943, which was of course bad for education, but was welcomed by many children,” recalls Dr. home. It would be almost two years before he went back to school.

He decided to study medicine, graduated from the University of Düsseldorf in 1960 and became interested in how cancer develops. His itinerant research career took him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for several years and then to several German universities. In the 1960s and early 1970s he did research on Epstein-Barr virus and lymphoma.

In 1972 he moved to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, where he began his work on cervical cancer. He later continued this work at the University of Freiburg.

At the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg he met the biologist Ethel-Michele de Villiers, who became his wife and close research associate.

No one “has influenced my personal life and scientific career more,” wrote Dr. zur Hausen in the Annual Review of Virology. “She has repeatedly mockingly stated that we both split our activities: she does the work and I do the talking. In fact, a large part of the experimental data obtained over several decades, as well as a number of excellent ideas, came from her. Looking at her work and her intellectual input and suggestions, which are often underestimated by some of her peers, I see that she is right to say so.”

She survives him, as do three sons from a previous marriage, Jan Dirk, Axel and Gerrit. Friends and colleagues said they knew almost nothing about this marriage, pointing out that Dr. zur Hausen is a very private person.

In 1983 he became scientific director of the German Cancer Research Center and held this position until 2003. But he never stopped doing research, and in recent years he has turned his attention to breast, colon, and other cancers.

“He was withdrawn from his Board of Directors,” said Dr. Puchta, “but not from his science.”

About The Author

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Videos