Harald zur Hausen and the human papilloma virus

I just finished reading the autobiography ‘Gegen Krebs’ [Against Cancer] by Harald zur Hausen. I am not aware that this book has been translated into English. Perhaps it should rather be called a semi-autobiography since zur Hausen wrote it together with the journalist Katja Reuter. If I had made scientific discoveries as important as those of zur Hausen, and if I decided to write a book about it, the last thing I would do would be to write it with someone else. He made a different choice and the book also includes reminiscences by colleagues, even by some with whom he had controversies and who have a very different view of what happened. I have the impression that the amount of material on conflicts with colleagues is rather large compared to the amount of science. I think that many successful scientists tend to selectively forget the conflicts, even if these have taken place, and concentrate more on the substance of their work. Thus I ask myself if this slant in the book comes directly from zur Hausen, or if it comes from his coauthor, or if he himself really tended to get into conflicts more often than other comparable figures. In any case, this aspect tended to make me enjoy the book less than, for instance, the book of Blumberg I read recently.

Let me now come to the central theme of the book. Harald zur Hausen discovered that a type of viruses causing warts, the human papilloma virus (HPV), also cause the majority of cases of cervical cancer. He was also involved in the development of the vaccine against these viruses which can be seen as the second major cancer vaccine, following the vaccine against hepatitis B. For this work he got a Nobel prize in 2008. He pursued the idea that this class of viruses could cause cervical cancer single-mindedly for a long time while few people believed it could be true. The picture in the book is that while there were a number of people thinking about a viral cause for the disease they were fixated either on herpes viruses or retroviruses. Herpes viruses were popular in this context because the first human virus known to be associated with cancer was the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) related to Burkitt’s lymphoma and EBV is a herpes virus. Early in his career zur Hausen worked in the laboratory of Werner and Gertrude Henle in Philadelphia. I studied (among other things) zoology in my first year at university and part of that, which appealed to me, was learning about anatomical structures and their names. From that time I remember the ‘loop of Henle’, a structure in the kidney. The Henle of the loop, Jakob Henle, was the grandfather of Werner. As I learned from a footnote in Blumberg’s book, the elder Henle was also the mentor of Robert Koch. Incidentally, Blumberg worked in Philadelphia starting in 1964 while zur Hausen went there in 1966. I did not notice any personal cross references between the two men in their books.

It seems that Gertrude Henle ruled with a strong hand. Once when a laboratory technician was ill for a few days she put on so much pressure that the young woman came into the lab one day just to show how ill she was. She did look convincingly ill and while she was there a blood sample was taken. This turned out to be a stroke of luck. Everyone in the lab had been tested for EBV as part of the research being done there and the technician was one of the few who had tested negative. After her illness she tested positive. In this way it was discovered that glandular fever, the illness she had, is caused by EBV. At that point it is natural to ask why EBV causes a relatively harmless disease in developed countries and cancer in parts of Africa. I have not gone into the background of this but I read that the areas where Burkitt’s lymphoma occurs tend to coincide with areas where malaria is endemic, suggesting a possible connection between the two.

One of the key insights which led to progress in the research on HPV was the recognition that this was not just one virus but a large family of related viruses. Those which turned out to be the biggest cause of cervical cancer are numbers 16 and 18. (After some initial arguments the viruses were named in the order of their discovery.) To obtain this insight it was necessary to have sufficiently good techniques for analysing DNA. The book gives a clear idea of how the progress in understanding in this field was intimately linked to the development of new techniques in molecular biology.

When zur Hausen won the Nobel prize it seemed that the German press and parts of the medical establishment had nothing better to do than to attack him, instead of celebrating his success. From the beginning it was suggested that he only got the prize because a member of the prize committee was on the board of one of the companies producing the vaccine and so would have a personal advantage from the publicity. It was also suggested that the vaccine was ineffective and/or dangerous. (The latter point actually led to a decrease in the number of people getting vaccinated and so, presumably, will mean that in the future many women will get a cancer that could have been prevented.) I do not believe that there was any justification for any of the criticism. So why did it happen? The explanation which occurs to me is the (latent or openly expressed) negative attitudes to science and technology which seem rather widespread in the German press and in German society. I find this surprising for a country which has contributed so much to science and technology and derives so much economic benefit from it.

After finishing the book I decided to try to get a small personal impression of Harald zur Hausen by watching the video of his Nobel lecture. It is untypical for such a lecture in that it contains relatively little about the work the prize was given for and instead concentrates on future research directions. According to the book zur Hausen’s co-laureate Luc Montagnier was suprised by that. The subject is zur Hausen’s lasting theme, the relation between infection and cancer. I found a lot of interesting ideas in it which were new to me. I mention just one. It is well known that there are statistics relating to a possible increase in the incidence of leukemia near nuclear power plants. Whether or not you find this data a convincing argument that there is an increased incidence it is fairly certain that you will link the increase in leukemia in this case (if any) to the effects of radiation. I was no exception to the tendency to make this connection. In his talk zur Hausen says that there are similar statistics showing an increase in leukemia near oil drilling platforms. So how does that fit together? If you cannot think of an answer and you would like to know then watch the video!

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One Response to “Harald zur Hausen and the human papilloma virus”

  1. Symposium in Mainz on controversies in biomedicine | Hydrobates Says:

    […] The meeting ended with the round table. I just want to mention one point which arose there. In a recent post I mentioned the negative attitude to science and technology, particular in the area of biomedicine, […]

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