ⓘ Harald zur Hausen

Harald zur Hausen

ⓘ Harald zur Hausen

Harald zur Hausen is a German virologist and professor emeritus. He has done research on cancer of the cervix, where he discovered the role of papilloma viruses, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008.


1. Early life and education

Zur Hausen was born in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, went to the Gymnasium in Vechta, and studied medicine at the Universities of Bonn, Hamburg and Dusseldorf and received a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1960 from the University of Dusseldorf, after which he became a medical assistant.


2. Career

Two years later, he joined the Institute for Microbiology at the University of Dusseldorf as a laboratory assistant. After three and a half years, he moved to Philadelphia and worked at the Virus Laboratories of the Childrens Hospital together with the famous husband and wife virologists, Werner and Gertrude Henle, who had to escape from Nazi Germany. In a ground-breaking study, he contributed to finding for the first time that a cancer virus Epstein-Barr virus can transform healthy cells lymphocytes into cancer cells. This directly showed that viruses can cause cancer cell formation. He became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1969, he became a regular teaching and researching professor at the University of Wurzburg, where he worked at the Institute for Virology. In 1972, he moved to the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In 1977, he moved on to the University of Freiburg Breisgau, where he headed the department of virology and hygiene. Working with Lutz Gissmann, zur Hausen first isolated human papillomavirus 6 by simple centrifugation from genital warts. Together with Ethel-Michele de Villiers, who would marry zur Hausen after his divorce from his first wife, this group isolated HPV 6 DNA from genital warts, suggesting a possible new way of identifying viruses in human tumors. This paid off several years later in 1983 when zur Hausen identified HPV 16 DNA in cervical cancer tumors by Southern blot hybridization. This was followed by discovery of HPV18 a year later, thus identifying the culprits responsible for ~75% of human cervical cancer. This sparked a major scientific controversy with other scientists favoring herpes simplex as a cause for cervical cancer.

From 1983 until 2003, zur Hausen served as a chairman and member of the scientific advisory board of the German Cancer Research Center Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ in German in Heidelberg and professor of medicine at the Heidelberg University. He also is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Cancer. He is author of the book Infections Causing Human Cancer from 2006.

On 1 January 2010, zur Hausen became the president of the German Cancer Aid, the leading organization fighting cancer in Europe. It was founded by doctor Mildred Scheel, the late" First Lady” of Germany. Zur Hausen has three sons from his first wife.


3. Scientific merits

Zur Hausens specific field of research is the study of oncoviruses. In 1976, he published the hypothesis that human papillomavirus plays an important role in the cause of cervical cancer. Together with his collaborators, he then identified HPV16 and HPV18 in cervical cancers in 1983-4. This research directly made possible the development of a vaccine which was introduced in 2006. See also HPV vaccine. He is also credited with discovery of the virus causing genital warts HPV 6 and a monkey lymphotropic polyomavirus that is a close relative to a recently discovered human Merkel cell polyomavirus, as well as techniques to immortalize cells with Epstein-Barr virus and to induce replication of the virus using phorbol esters. His work on papillomaviruses and cervical cancer received a great deal of scientific criticism on initial unveiling but subsequently was confirmed and extended to other high-risk papillomaviruses.

He received the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 2008 for his contributions to medical science. He also shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus.

There was controversy over the 2008 Nobel when it was learned that Bo Angelin, a member of the Nobel Assembly that year, also sat on the board of AstraZeneca, a company which earns patent royalties for HPV vaccines. This was exacerbated by the fact that AstraZeneca had also entered into a partnership with Nobel Web and Nobel Media to sponsor documentaries and lectures to increase awareness of the prize. However, colleagues widely felt that the award was deserved, and the secretary of the Nobel Committee and Assembly made a statement that at the time of the vote, Bo Angelin did not know of AstraZenecas HPV vaccine patents.


4. Books

  • Cornwall, Claudia M. Catching cancer: the quest for its viral and bacterial causes. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.
  • Infections Causing Human Cancer 2006 Print ISBN 978-3-527-31056-2; Online ISBN 978-3-527-60931-4

5. Awards

  • Gairdner Foundation International Award 2008
  • San Marino Prize for Medicine 2002
  • Robert Koch Prize 1975
  • German Cancer Aid Award 2006
  • AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research 2008
  • William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology in 2006 with Ian Frazer
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008
  • Honorary degrees of the universities of Chicago, Umeå, Prague, Salford, Helsinki, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Ferrara, Guadalajara and Salerno
  • Charles S. Mott Prize 1986
  • Paul-Ehrlich-und-Ludwig-Darmstaedter-Preis 1994
  • Virchow Medal from the University of Wurzburg 2000
  • Great Cross of Merit 2004
  • Corresponding member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts June 2015