Harald zur Hausen studied viruses and discovered that certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, can cause cervical cancer, in Europe during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Zur Hausen spent his research career identifying the viruses that cause diseases, particularly cancer-causing viruses (oncoviruses). He primarily focused on HPV and cervical cancer. Zur Hausen hypothesized that HPV was cancerous and discovered that two strains, HPV 16 and 18, caused cervical cancer. That discovery led to improved diagnosis of cervical cancer and the later development of the HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix. In 2008, zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

From 1977 to 1987, Harald zur Hausen led a team of researchers across several institutions in Germany to investigate whether the human papillomavirus (HPV) caused cervical cancer. Zur Hausen's first experiment tested the hypothesis that HPV caused cervical cancer rather than herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), the then accepted cause. His second and third experiments detailed methods to identify two previously unidentified HPV strains, HPV 16 and HPV 18, in cervical cancer tumor samples. The experiments showed that HPV 16 and 18 DNA were present in cervical tumor samples. Zur Hausen concluded that HPV, not HSV-2, caused cervical cancer, which enabled researchers to develop preventions, such as the HPV vaccine.

Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a viral pathogen that most commonly spreads through sexual contact. HPV strains 6 and 11 normally cause genital warts, while HPV strains 16 and 18 commonly cause cervical cancer, which causes cancerous cells to spread in the cervix. Physicians can detect those HPV strains, using a Pap smear, which is a diagnostic test that collects cells from the female cervix.

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