Gertrude Elion – the woman who changed science
Only 12 of the prestigious Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been awarded to women. One of them is Gertrude Elion. She shattered male dominance in medical science and found effective treatments for a number of ailments, including leukemia.
Gertrude Elion was born on January 23, 1918 in New York City into a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe. She was extremely hardworking and eager for knowledge, so she can’t decide which field to go to after graduating from high school. She was extremely hardworking and thirsty for knowledge, so it was difficult for her to decide what field to focus on after graduating from high school. Meanwhile, her grandfather, who followed her parents from Russia, died of stomach cancer. Strongly attached to him, she decided to dedicate herself to seeking treatment for the disease. Many have such a dream but only a few are able to achieve it. Gertrude Elion is among them.
In 1937 she graduated from Hunter College which offers free treatment to excellent students with a degree in Chemistry.
The Great Depression at the time limited her opportunities for further education. Gertrude has to work but it is difficult to find a job as a chemist – many laboratories refuse to accept women. She eventually began studying for a master’s degree in chemistry at New York University and in 1941 was the only woman to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry.
At the end of 1941 the United States entered World War II and men replaced white aprons with military uniforms. Women have the opportunity, also Gertrude Elion, to work in the scientific fields. After a short career as a chemist she applied to the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline). Fate met her with biochemist George Hitchings who conducted the job interview.
It was not a problem for him to hire women or men, as well as to share his knowledge with those who are thirsty for them. Thus began one of the most productive partnerships in the history of drug discovery.
George Hitchings focuses his research energy on the metabolism of nucleic acids DNA and RNA. They are known to carry genetic information (James Watson and Francis Crick will formulate the double-stranded structure of DNA in 1953) and that purines and pyrimidines are their important chemical structures. He thinks that, like sulfonamides, other substances can affect microbial metabolism. His scientific idea is as follows: first, to find a difference in the metabolism of nucleic acids in normal and rapidly multiplying cells (carcinomas, bacteria, viruses and protozoa); then – to create substances structurally similar to nucleic acids in order to integrate into their natural metabolism and at the same time be different in order to block it afterwards.
George Hitchings commissioned Elion to study purines. The idea of healing by influencing DNA synthesis is exciting for Gertrude Elion and she sees in it the realization of her childhood dream.
While continuing to work, she began attending evening doctoral courses at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. After 2 years, however, she was informed that she had to continue for another year, but as a full-time student. She made the critical decision to refuse her doctorate, but to continue the exciting work and never regrets it. Elion is financially secured by Burroughs Wellcome to continue her work and advance in her scientific career without a doctorate. She would later become one of the few Nobel laureates without a doctorate.
In 1948, George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion discovered 2,6-diaminopurine.
A few years later, they developed two new chemotherapeutics for methotrexate-resistant leukemia: thioguanine in 1950 and mercaptopurine (6-MP) in 1951. The drugs revolutionized the treatment of leukemia and continue to be used today. Later, azathioprine appeared, which together with corticosteroids was used in the world’s first successful kidney transplant. In the following years it was the main preparation for transplants. Trying to prolong the effect of 6-MP, they received allopurinol (1963), effective in gout. This was followed by the discovery of the antimalarial drug pyrimethamine (1950) and the antibacterial trimethoprine (1956).
Later, the focus of research shifted to antiviral drugs. Acyclovir is the result of Gertrude Elion’s own chemical insight. It shows its narrow spectrum, effective against herpes simplex viruses and less against varicella-zoster virus. Acyclovir has remarkably low toxicity, which is amazing for antivirals. It is also indicated for the prevention of these viruses in immunocompromised patients. Like penicillin half a century ago, acyclovir heralds a new therapeutic era.
In 1988, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to James Black, Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings for their discovery of “important principles of drug treatment”.
The Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine at the Nobel Prize Award Cermony 1988. From left: Sir James W. Black, Gertrude B. Elion and George H. Hitchings. Photo from the Lars Astrom archive, www.nobelprize.org
Gertrude Elion’s innovative way of working and thinking prepares the pharmaceutical industry to meet the challenges of HIV infection. In 1984 researchers at Burroughs Wellcome (Marty St. Clair), trained by Elion, discovered the anti-HIV properties of the unused antitumor drug azidothymidine. Despite its moderate activity it paves the way for future generations of life-saving antiretroviral drugs.
Gertrude Elion entered the world of scientific pharmaceutical research with a certain delay, preceded by a number of discouraging events. They did not diminish her enthusiasm to achieve her goal of “becoming a scientist, especially a chemist, and finding a cure for cancer.” Her analytical mind and rational approach to medical research generated not only the first effective treatment for leukemia, but also the first immunosuppressant to allow organ transplantation and the first effective antiviral drug. There is something that cannot be measured in numbers – children cured of leukemia, people rescued after a successful organ transplant and prevented from opportunistic infections.
Author: Prof. Radka Komitova, MD, Department of Infectious Diseases, Parasitology and Tropical Medicine