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Medicine, zur Hausen, and the discovery of oncoviruses

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

The passing of German virologist Harald zur Hausen, 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine for discovering Human Papillomavirus as the etiological agent of cervical cancer, has deeply impacted the world of medicine. The scientist was awarded in Stockholm along with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who discovered the HIV virus and passed away on Sunday, May 28th in Heidelberg at the age of 87.

In his studies, Zur Hausen focused on a female tumor, cervical cancer. "The discovery of oncoviruses, capable of inducing neoplastic transformation, has revolutionized the history of virology as well as oncology," emphasizes oncologist Antonio Giordano, director of the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia and professor at the University of Siena, speaking to Fortune Italia.

Virally-induced Tumours

"The World Health Organization indicates that about 15% of all tumors are of “viral origin," as mentioned by Giordano, "and for seven of these neoplasms, there is a clear causal link between the virus and the tumor. This is the case of the Papillomavirus (HPV), whose oncogenicity was identified by Harald zur Hausen. His studies on the mechanisms of action of oncoviruses were so significant that they led him to the Nobel Prize."

As early as 1976, the German physician hypothesized that HPV played an important role in the development of cervical cancer. "His later studies confirmed the hypothesis that earned him the Nobel. HPV is primarily associated with the development of cervical tumors but also with penile, anal, and head and neck neoplasms. The discovery of Papillomavirus oncogenicity is significant in the history of medicine because, thanks to this insight," emphasizes Giordano, "we have now the opportunity to predict women who may develop this neoplasm."

In addition to diagnostic tools, we have also preventive methods such as vaccination. A Pap test allows us to identify early lesions that could evolve into tumors. From a preventive point of view, the development and introduction of the HPV vaccination, approved in 2006, has led to a rapid reduction in the incidence of this neoplasm." Since 2017, the National Vaccination Plan has also extended vaccination to males.

"The discovery of the Human Papillomavirus as the etiological agent of cervical cancer is even more remarkable," concludes Giordano, "when we consider the clinical applications that this discovery has brought for public health, especially in developing countries, where cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women."

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