Harald zur Hausen, Nobelist who found cause of cervical cancer, dies at 87

Harald zur Hausen, PhD, a German virologist who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that human papillomavirus caused cervical cancer, died May 29 at 87, The New York Times reported June 9.

Dr. zur Hausen's discovery paved the way for vaccines against HPV, which can prevent 80 percent of cancers caused by the virus. His hypothesis that HPV caused cervical cancer contradicted the wisdom of "almost the full scientific world," Timo Bund, PhD, a scientist at the German Cancer Research Center, told the Times

He presented his results in a 1974 conference and was "intensively criticized." At the time, many scientists believed cervical cancer was caused by the herpes simplex virus.

He began researching HPV in cancer, discovering that not all strands led to cancer. Dr. zur Hausen was devoted to his research and could be "unshakable" when he had an idea, according to Dr. Bund. 

"I think he never doubted in any way that this was correct," Michael Boshart, a geneticist at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich who was a PhD student on the research team, told the Times.

In 1983 and 1984, Dr. zur Hausen and his colleagues announced they found two types of HPV in cervical cancer cells and later reported about 70 percent of biopsies contained one of these two viruses. Other scientists began to confirm the findings. Dr. zur Hausen shared clones of the viral DNA with other researchers, which helped accelerate the scientific understanding and development of vaccines. 

The first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006. In 2008, Dr. zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with two French virologists who discovered HIV.

Dr. zur Hausen died after a stroke in May, according to a colleague. He is survived by his wife and three sons.

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