Dr. Harald zur Hausen, a German virologist who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering that the apparently benign human papillomavirus, known for causing warts, also causes cervical cancer, died May 29 at his home in Heidelberg, Germany. He turned 87.
His death was announced by the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, which Dr. zur Hausen for two decades. Josef Puchta, the center’s former administrative director and longtime colleague and friend, said Dr. zur Hausen suffered a stroke in May.
The discovery of Dr. zur Hausen paved the way for vaccines against human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can also cause other cancers, including of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and back of the throat.
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 600,000 people develop an HPV-related cancer each year. Vaccination can prevent as many as 90 percent of those cancers.
Dr. zur Hausen leaves “an enormous legacy,” says Dr. Margaret Stanley, an HPV researcher at the University of Cambridge, 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 a given in high-profile research labs, they noted—and more than one described him as a “gentleman.”
He was also doggedly committed to his research, and he could be “unshakeable” when he had an idea, said Timo Bund, a scientist at Germany’s Center for Cancer Research. Dr. zur Hausen’s hypothesis that HPV caused cervical cancer contradicted the prevailing wisdom of “almost the entire scientific world,” said Dr. Bund, and it took him ten years to prove it.
When he first proposed the idea, in the 1970s, many scientists believed that cervical cancer was caused by cervical cancer herpes simplex virus. But dr. zur Hausen could find no sign of herpes in the biopsies of patients with cervical cancer. When he presented those results at a scientific conference in 1974, he was “heavily criticized,” he recalled in an autobiographical article in the Annual Review of Virology.
Dr. zur Hausen was intrigued by reports that genital warts could in rare cases become cancerous. He began looking for human papillomavirus DNA in cells from cervical cancer patients using a gene probe, a short piece of single-stranded DNA designed to bind to a specific sequence in the HPV genome.
The work proved challenging, in part because it became clear that there are many different types of HPV, each with its own genetic sequence and not all of them causing cancer.
Dr. zur Hausen was not deterred. “I don’t think he ever doubted that this was right,” said Michael Boshart, a geneticist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich who is pursuing a Ph.D. student in the research team.
Finally, in 1983, Dr. zur Hausen and his colleagues indicated that they had found a new type of HPV in cervical cancer cells. The following year, they reported another. About 70 percent of cervical cancer biopsies, they found, contained one of these two viruses.
Other scientists soon confirmed the findings. “I felt some satisfaction in this situation because until now several colleagues had ridiculed our research by saying, ‘Everyone knows that warts and papillomaviruses are harmless,'” 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 stuff,” said Dr. Stanley. “Because he was handing them out to the papillomavirus community, there was an absolute explosion of work.”
That research helped accelerate scientific understanding of the viruses and vaccine development. The first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006. Dr. zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize two years later, sharing the prize with the two French virologists who discovered HIV
He became a staunch supporter of the vaccine, which is highly effective but which many children do not receive. He argued that the vaccine, initially promoted mainly for girls, should also be given to boys, which is what health officials are now recommending.
Dr. zur Hausen was born on March 11, 1936 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, the youngest of the four children of Melanie and Eduard zur Hausen. His father was an officer in the German army.
The industrial area where he grew up was heavily bombed in World War II. “As a result, all schools closed in early 1943, which was of course bad for education, but welcomed by many children,” recalls Dr. zur Hausen themselves. It would be almost two years before he went back to school.
He decided to study medicine, graduated from the University of Düsseldorf in 1960 and became interested in the origin of cancer. His itinerant research career took him to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for several years and then to multiple 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 started working on cervical cancer. He later continued that work at the University of Freiburg.
It was at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg that he met the biologist Ethel-Michele de Villiers, who became his wife and his closest scientific collaborator.
No one “influenced my personal life and my scientific career anymore,” wrote Dr. zur Hausen in the Annual Review of Virology. “She has said repeatedly, mockingly, that the two of us split our activities: she does the work and I do the talking. Indeed, much of the experimental data obtained over several decades, as well as some excellent ideas, are hers. Looking at her work and her intellectual input and proposals, often underestimated by several of her colleagues, I see she has a point in saying this.
She survives him, as do three sons from a previous marriage, Jan Dirk, Axel and Gerrit. Friends and colleagues said they knew next to nothing about that marriage, noting that Dr. zur Hausen was an intensely private person.
He became the scientific director of the German Center for Cancer Research in 1983 and held that position until 2003. But he never stopped doing research and in recent years he turned his attention to breast, colon and other cancers.
“He was retired from his directorship,” said Dr. Puchta, “but not of his science.”