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To Harald zur Hausen on his 80th birthday

No. 13 | 10/03/2016 | by Koh

Harald zur Hausen, Nobel Prize Winner, “intellectual father” of the vaccination against cervical cancer, and former Chairman and Scientific Director of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) will be celebrating his 80th birthday on Friday, March 11, 2016.

Harald zur Hausen
© Tobias Schwerdt/DKFZ

“On behalf of all employees of the German Cancer Research Center, we extend our best wishes to Harald zur Hausen on his birthday and wish him many more years in good health,” say DKFZ’s present Directors Michael Boutros and Josef Puchta. “We are proud to have him in our midst as a person who has written a chapter of medical history and has gained overwhelming recognition around the world for this achievement.”

Zur Hausen was Chairman and Scientific Director of the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) in Heidelberg from 1983 to 2003. He still heads a research department at the DKFZ. His co-workers are searching for new viruses that are linked, among other diseases, with bowel cancer.

“Perseverance is a word that keeps recurring in reports about Harald zur Hausen,” says Josef Puchta, who worked very closely with zur Hausen over many years. “We all admire him for the perseverance that he still shows, even after the Nobel Prize, in searching for unknown cancer-causing viruses. Many of us cannot wait to see his new findings and we would not be surprised if he proved to be right once again!”

Already as a young medical student, Harald zur Hausen had the goal of following a career in science. After he completed his doctorate in 1966, a fortuitous circumstance brought him to the lab of Gertrude and Werner Henle at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the USA. Working for these two pioneers of tumor virology, zur Hausen first got involved in a topic that was to remain with him for the rest of his life as a research scientist: the link between viral infection and cancer.

Following three years of successful research work at the University of Würzburg, zur Hausen was offered the post of Professor of Virology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in 1972. This was where he first started thinking about the topic that would later help him make his most important scientific breakthrough so far. From old medical case reports, he concluded that there might be a causal link between infection with human papillomaviruses (HPV), the pathogens that cause warts, and cervical cancer. This was to become the motif guiding his scientific work for the next few decades.

Using the labor-intensive methods of those days, zur Hausen and his team discovered that the papillomavirus family has a multitude of members. Eventually, they succeeded in detecting DNA of these viruses in cancer tissue. Thus, they had found a strong indication that human papillomavirus plays a causal role in the development of cancer.

In 1977, zur Hausen accepted the post of Professor of Virology at the University of Freiburg, where he and his co-workers finally achieved the crucial breakthroughs. From tissue samples taken from cervical tumors, they isolated the DNA of the two most important cancer-causing HPV types. In addition, they were able to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of how HPV-infected cells turn cancerous. From then on, even the many skeptics were convinced that infection with one of the high-risk HPV types is the cause of cervical cancer.

By then, zur Hausen had already been appointed Chairman and Scientific Director of the German Cancer Research Center, a post that he held for the following two decades. Right at the start of his time in Heidelberg, he profoundly restructured the DKFZ and introduced modern methods of science management. Under his leadership, the research center emerged as one of the world’s leading cancer research institutes. Particularly his perseverance in establishing collaborations with Heidelberg University Hospital has borne fruit: The University Hospital and the DKFZ eventually teamed up to establish the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg as a joint project that is now tremendously successful.

Once the main high-risk HPV types that cause cancer had been identified, a possibility emerged that had never before been conceivable: to develop a vaccine against the cancer-causing viruses in order to prevent the development of cervical cancer. Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come. Zur Hausen’s former students instrumentally participated in overcoming the technical problems on the road to developing this vaccine. Finally, in 2006, vaccines against the main high-risk HPV types became available. Scientists expect that HPV vaccination will protect thousands of women each year from cervical cancer, which often takes a deadly course in many parts of the world.

There is no doubt that Harald zur Hausen is the “intellectual father” of the first ever vaccine that was developed specifically against cancer. To be able to witness how one’s own research hypothesis eventually is used to prevent a life-threatening disease is the most wonderful acknowledgement of his life’s work as a scientist.

Zur Hausen has been distinguished with a multitude of honors and awards for his scientific accomplishments. He has also earned a tremendous number of honorary doctorates. All these distinctions were finally outshined by the Nobel Prize for Medicine, which he was bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2008.

A picture for this press release is available at:

(Tobias Schwerdt/DKFZ)

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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