A Nobel Prize for Overblown Controversy? (Update)

Last week, the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony took place in Stockholm, but not everyone was celebrating. A brouhaha erupted when a Swedish government anticorruption official told the media he had concerns about a pharmaceutical company's ties to the Nobel Prize awarded this year to Germany's Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of the link between human papilloma virus (HPV) and cervical cancer. (Zur Hausen's Nobel lecture and those of the other winners can be viewed here.) The British-Swedish company AstraZeneca receives patent royalties from HPV vaccines, and in November, AstraZeneca launched a collaboration with Nobel Web, the Nobel Foundation's Web site, and Nobel Media, a subsidiary company, to produce documentaries and sponsor lectures that increase interest in the prize. The Swedish media also reported that a member of AstraZeneca's board, Bo Angelin, sits on the Nobel Assembly that awarded zur Hausen the prize. According to Forbes magazine, Angelin has received $42,000 in compensation for sitting on the company's board.

The anticorruption official who raised the potential conflict-of-interest issues reportedly said he may launch an investigation. Yet no evidence has come to light that AstraZeneca or Angelin had any special influence on the prize going to zur Hausen, and colleagues widely felt he was deserving of the honor. AstraZeneca's collaboration with Nobel Web and Nobel Media also came a month after the announcement of zur Hausen's prize.

Conflict of interest is a real problem that deserves serious scrutiny. But unless something more substantial surfaces about AstraZeneca or Angelin's role in this award, there's no need to put an asterisk next to zur Hausen's name.

The media flap may have had one result: According to Swedish news reports, the head of the Nobel Committee, which recommends potential prizewinners to the assembly, said the committee plans to discuss links between prizewinners and Nobel sponsors, a new issue for them.

Addendum: Hans Jornvall, the secretary of the Nobel Committee and Assembly, on 16 December sent ScienceInsider and others a statement that said at the time of the vote,  neither Bo Angelin nor the Committee or Assembly knew of AstraZeneca's HPV vaccine patents. "Nothing subsequently discussed has changed our integrity at that moment or our depth of investigation of the discoveries honoured," wrote Jornvall. He further said the collaboration between AstraZeneca, Nobel Web and Nobel Media was done "without our knowledge or agreement" and has "no connection with our prize-selecting work."