For decades, scientists believed that the cause of cervical cancer was a sexually transmitted infection. First, they thought that the herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), a commonly sexually transmitted virus that causes genital herpes, also caused cervical cancer.
When German virologist Harald zur Hausen tested cervical tumor samples for herpes virus, however, it was not found. Observing that people who had genital warts, known to be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), often went on to develop cervical cancer, he turned his research to look for these viruses in cervical cancer. In 1976, he published his theory that it was HPV that caused cervical cancer, not HSV. Subsequent experiments proved his theory correct, as he identified HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two HPV types we now know to commonly cause cervical cancer, and by 1983, Dr. zur Hausen had demonstrated that cervical cancer in humans is caused by HPV and showed that genes from the virus are incorporated into the host cell’s DNA. HPV was subsequently shown to cause anal, penile, vulvar, vaginal, and oropharyngeal cancers as well. Dr. zur Hausen’s discoveries paved the path to the creation of HPV vaccines now in common use. He received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for “his discovery of human papillomaviruses causing cervical cancer.”
Harald zur Hausen has supported the widespread availability and use of HPV vaccines. In 2009, he published a commentary in the journal The Lancet noting that, “The goal to eradicate sexually transmitted carcinogenic viruses can be jointly carried by women and men and could be accomplished within a few decades.” Today, HPV vaccination is cancer prevention.