Nobel Committee Less than Noble at Awarding Discovery
In the early 1980s, bets would probably have been on virologist Robert Gallo, then at the National Cancer Institute, to win a Nobel Prize. At a time when scientists were considering many possible causes of AIDS, he was one of the few who believed that a retrovirus, the family of viruses HIV belongs to, was responsible for the syndrome.
Instead, this October 6th, two scientists, Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, from the Pasteur Institute, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for first identifying HIV. They joined the retrovirus hunt late, at the suggestion of an independent scientist, and beat Gallo to the identification of the virus in a patient with the symptoms of AIDS.
In a perfect world of scientific discovery, the person who predicted the type of virus responsible for a disease would be the first to detect it in a patient and go on to perform experiments that explore its role in disease. Take the case of Harald zur Hausen, who shares this year’s Nobel with Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier. His hunch that human papillomavirus or HPV causes cervical cancer led him to uncover a new group of viruses known as ‘high-risk HPVs.’ About 30 years later, the work begun by zur Hausen brought us an effective vaccine against HPV-associated cervical cancer–which normally kills about 250,000 women worldwide each year.
But when the process of discovery is less straightforward, as was the case for HIV, how does the Nobel Committee decide who gets the recognition? The answer this year was to give the award to the scientists who managed to detect the new virus, not to the one who first hypothesized that an HIV-like virus was the culprit and pursued many follow-up studies exploring its role in disease.
History and the Nobel Committee might say “tough merde” to Gallo for not capitalizing on his hunch, but his expertise in the field of retroviruses allowed him to make significant and speedy contributions both to confirm the role of HIV in AIDS and to diagnose infection. These contributions should not have been overlooked last week when Gallo was denied the ultimate mark of scientific excellence.
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