Tsvangirai loses Nobel prize to scientists who discovered AIDS virus

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Two French scientists who discovered the AIDS virus and a German who found the virus that causes cervical cancer were awarded the 2008 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology on Monday.

Zimbabwe’s prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai was tipped at 9 to 1 and the Cluster Munitions Coalition, which wants to ban cluster bombs, at 8-to-1 on Betsafe.

Luc Montagnier, director of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi of the Institut Pasteur won half the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) for discovering the deadly virus that has killed 25 million people since it was identified in the 1980s.

Harald zur Hausen of the University of Duesseldorf and a former director of the German Cancer Research Center shared the other half of the prize for work that went against the conventional wisdom about the cause of cervical cancer.

"The three laureates have discovered two new viruses of great importance and the result of that has led to an improved global health," said Jan Andersson, a member of the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

Montagnier told Reuters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he was holding a lecture, that the award sent a strong message.

"It comes at a time when much progress has been done in research, but not enough because the epidemic is still there," Montagnier said. "We are in Africa. Many infected people do not have access to medicine."

DISPUTE

The award is a decisive vote for Montagnier in a long-running dispute over who discovered and identified the virus, Montagnier or Dr. Robert Gallo, then of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

Montagnier and Gallo each accused the other of working with contaminated samples and it took presidential-level negotiations to persuade the National Institutes of Health and the Institut Pasteur to share royalties for the discovery.

"There was no doubt as to who made the fundamental discoveries," Nobel Assembly member Maria Masucci told Reuters.

Barre-Sinoussi said in a telephone interview with RTL radio that the dispute with Gallo belonged to the past.

"It is a conflict to be forgotten. It is also true that American teams were important in the discovery of the virus, and that should be recognized," she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy noted it was the first medicine Nobel to be awarded to a French research team since 1980: "This Nobel Prize is an honor for the entirety of French and European medicine and biomedical research," he said.

When Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi began their research in the early 1980s, a hitherto undocumented immune deficiency syndrome had just begun striking down victims in the West.

The French researchers found the virus infected and killed immune cells called lymphocytes from both diseased and healthy donors. Their findings also helped explain how HIV damaged the immune system and made possible the design of HIV drugs that can now keep patients healthy.

CANCER BREAKTHROUGH

Zur Hausen was recognized for research based on his idea that human papilloma virus, or HPV, caused cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievement in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. An economics prize was established in 1968.

The Nobel laureate for physics will be announced on Tuesday, followed by the chemistry Nobel on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in Oslo.