FAU mourns the death of Nobel laureate in medicine Professor Harald zur Hausen

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Professor zur Hausen always remained closely connected to FAU. The Nobel laureate traveled to Erlangen especially for the inauguration of the lecture hall named after him in 2018. (Image: FAU/Erich Malter)

Cancer researcher and founder of the Institute of Virology in Erlangen has died at the age of 87

“FAU mourns the loss of an outstanding researcher who had a decisive influence on virological research at our university,” remarked FAU President, Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger, on the news of Harald zur Hausen’s death. The Nobel laureate died on Sunday at the age of 87.

Harald zur Hausen taught and conducted research at FAU between 1972 and 1977, where he established the Institute of Virology as its founding director. In 2008, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the role of papillomaviruses in the development of cervical cancer. He laid important foundations for this during his time at FAU. Professor zur Hausen remained closely associated with FAU after his departure – as a university councilor (1998 to 2002), as an honorary senator of FAU (since 2002) and was awarded an honorary doctorate at the Faculty of Medicine (2005). In July 2018, FAU named a lecture hall at the Faculty of Medicine after its famous alumnus. The honoree traveled all the way to Erlangen for the inauguration ceremony.

Harald zur Hausen was born in Gelsenkirchen in 1936. After graduating from high school, he studied medicine at the universities of Bonn, Hamburg and Düsseldorf. He also worked in Düsseldorf, where he received his doctorate in 1960, and was based there until he obtained his license to practice medicine. At the end of his training in 1966, Harald zur Hausen moved to the “Virus Laboratories” of the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, which were headed by the German-born virologists Gertrude and Werner Henle. In the 1960s, as pioneers of viral diagnostics they had discovered how to immunize against the Epstein-Barr virus and drew Harald zur Hausen’s research to the connection between viral infections and cancer. At the end of the 1960s, Harald zur Hausen returned to Germany to complete his habilitation at the University of Würzburg. In 1972, he accepted a professorship at FAU, which established the Institute for Clinical Virology under his direction.

Harald zur Hausen did fundamental work in Erlangen and made groundbreaking discoveries. For example, he was able to detect genetic material of the Epstein-Barr virus in nasopharyngeal carcinomas – a milestone in tumor research. And he noticed in old case reports that there must be a connection between human papillomaviruses (HPV), which are wart pathogens, and the development of cervical cancer. Over time, Harald zur Hausen and his team in Erlangen were not only able to identify various human papillomaviruses, but also to detect their genetic material in the cancer tissue. While this did not yet prove that the papillomaviruses caused cancer, it did encourage the researcher on his path.

Harald zur Hausen continued his career in 1977 at the University of Freiburg and from 1983 as director of the German Cancer Research Center. There, Harald zur Hausen discovered carcinogenic HPV types in cervical cancer samples. Here, the virologist was able to clarify how cells infected with HPV degenerate into cancer, thus laying the foundations for the vaccine against cervical cancer. Harald zur Hausen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008 for his discovery of the role of human papillomaviruses in the development of cervical cancer.

Over the course of his long career, Professor zur Hausen has been honored with an impressive array of academic awards. He was the recipient of nearly 40 honorary doctorates and numerous honorary professorships.

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