Dr Harald zur Hausen, a German virologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 for his discovery that the seemingly benign human papillomavirus, known to cause warts, also caused cervical cancer, died on 29 May at his home in Heidelberg, Germany. He was 87 years old.
His death was announced by the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, which Dr zur Hausen headed for two decades. Josef Puchta, the center’s former administrative director and longtime colleague and friend, said Dr zur Hausen had 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 of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and the back of the throat.
More than 600,000 people develop HPV-related cancer each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Vaccination can prevent up to 90% of these cancers.
Dr. zur Hausen leaves “a huge legacy,” Cambridge University HPV researcher Dr. Margaret Stanley said in an interview: A life-saving vaccine and life-saving tests to detect the virus.
Colleagues remembered Dr zur Hausen as courteous, considerate and respectful – not always evident in high-level research labs, they noted – and more than one described him as a “gentleman”.
He was stubbornly dedicated to his research and could be “unwavering” when he had an idea, said Timo Bund, a scientist at the German Cancer Research Centre. Dr. zur Hausen’s hypothesis that HPV causes cervical cancer contradicts the mainstream wisdom of “almost everyone in science,” Dr. Bund said, and it took him a decade to prove it.
When he first proposed this notion in the 1970s, many scientists believed that cervical cancer was caused by herpes simplex virus. But Dr. zur Hausen found no signs of herpes in biopsies from patients with cervical cancer. When he presented these results at a scientific conference in 1974, he was “intensely criticized”, he recalled in an autobiographical article in the Annual Review of Virology.
Dr. zur Hausen had been intrigued by reports that genital warts could, in rare cases, turn into cancer. He began searching for human papillomavirus DNA in the cells of cervical cancer patients using a gene probe, a short piece of single-stranded DNA designed to bind to a specific sequence of the HPV genome.
The work proved difficult, in part because it became clear that there were many different types of HPV, each with its own genetic sequence and not all of them causing cancer.
Dr. zur Hausen was undeterred. “I think he never doubted in any way that it was correct,” said Michael Boshart, a geneticist at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, who had a doctorate. student in the research team.
Finally, in 1983, Dr. zur Hausen and his colleagues announced that they had discovered a new type of HPV in cervical cancer cells. The following year, they brought back another. About 70% of cervical cancer biopsies, they found, contained one of these two viruses.
Other scientists quickly confirmed the results. “I felt a certain satisfaction in this situation, because up to this moment several colleagues had ridiculed our research by saying: ‘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 business,” Dr Stanley said. “Because he distributed them to the HPV community, there was an absolute burst of work.”
This research has helped to accelerate the scientific understanding of viruses as well as the development of vaccines. The first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006. Dr. zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine two years later, sharing it with the two French virologists who had discovered HIV, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier (died in February) .
He has become a strong advocate for the vaccine, which is very effective but which many children do not receive. He argued that the vaccine, which was initially promoted 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 four children born to Melanie and Eduard zur Hausen. His father was an officer in the German army.
The industrial area where he grew up was heavily bombed during World War II. “As a result, all schools closed at the beginning of 1943, which was obviously bad for education but welcomed by many children,” Dr zur Hausen recalled. It will take him almost two years before returning to school.
He decided to study medicine, graduated from the University of Düsseldorf in 1960 and became interested in the origins of cancer. His career as an itinerant researcher took him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for several years, then to several German universities. In the 1960s and early 1970s he conducted research on the Epstein-Barr virus and lymphoma.
In 1972 he moved to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, where he began his work on cervical cancer. He then continued this work at the University of Fribourg.
It was at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg that he met the biologist Ethel-Michele de Villiers, who would become his wife and close scientific collaborator.
No one “has influenced my personal life and my scientific career more,” Dr. zur Hausen wrote in the Annual Review of Virology. “She has repeatedly said, mockingly, that we are separating our activities: she does the work and I do the talking. Indeed, a large part of the experimental data obtained during several decades as well as a certain number of excellent ideas belong to him. In view of her work and her intellectual contribution and her proposals, often underestimated by several of her colleagues, I see that she is right to say that.
She survives him, as well as three sons from a previous marriage, Jan Dirk, Axel and Gerrit. Friends and colleagues said they knew next to nothing about this marriage, noting that Dr zur Hausen was an extremely private person.
He became scientific director of the German Cancer Research Center in 1983 and held this position until 2003. But he never stopped conducting research and in recent years he has turned to cancers breast, colon and other cancers.
“He was removed from his position as director,” Dr. Puchta said, “but not from his science.”