Elion, Gertrude Belle (“Trudy”)(1918–1999)
Chemist, Medical Researcher
Although Nobel Prizes in science are usually awarded for basic research, the 1988 prize in physiology or medicine went to three people in applied science—drug developers. “Rarely has scientific experimentation been so intimately linked to the reduction of human suffering,” the 1988 Nobel Prize Annual said of their work. One of the researchers was Gertrude Elion.
Gertrude, whom everyone called Trudy, was born on January 23, 1918, to immigrant parents in New York City. Her father, Robert, was a dentist. The family moved to the Bronx, then a suburb, in 1924. Trudy spent much of her childhood reading, especially about “people who discovered things.”
In 1933, the year Trudy graduated from high school at age 15, her beloved grandfather died in pain of stomach cancer, and she determined to find a cure for this terrible disease. There was no money to send her to college, however, because her family had lost its savings in the 1929 stock market crash. Trudy enrolled at New York City's Hunter College, which offered free tuition to qualified women. She graduated from Hunter with a B.A. in chemistry and highest honors in 1937.
Elion failed to win a scholarship to graduate school, so she set out to find a job—not easy for anyone during the Depression, let alone for a woman chemist. One interviewer turned her down because he feared she would be a “distracting influence” on male workers. She took several short-term jobs and also attended New York University for a year, beginning in 1939, to take courses for her master's degree. She then did her degree research on evenings and weekends while teaching high school and finally completed the degree in 1941.
World War II removed many men from workplaces, making employers more willing to hire women, and in 1944 it finally opened the doors of a research laboratory to Gertrude Elion. Burroughs Wellcome, a New York drug company, hired her as an assistant to a researcher, George Hitchings. Most drugs in those days were developed by
trial and error, but Hitchings had a different approach. His lab looked systematically for differences between the ways that normal body cells and undesirable cells such as cancer cells, bacteria, and viruses used key chemicals as they grew and reproduced. The researchers then tried to find or make chemicals that interfered with these processes in undesirable cells but not in normal ones.
Elion at first worked mostly as a chemist, synthesizing compounds that closely resembled the building blocks of nucleic acids. The nucleic acids, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), carry inherited information and are essential for cell reproduction. Scientists had theorized around 1940 that an antibiotic called sulfanilamide killed bacteria by “tricking” them into taking it up instead of a nutrient that the bacteria needed, thus starving them to death, and Hitchings thought that a similar “antimetabolite” therapy might work against cancer. If a cancer cell took up compounds similar but not identical to parts of nucleic acids, he reasoned, the chemicals would prevent the cell from reproducing and eventually kill it, much as a badly fitting part can jam the works of a machine. He and Elion set out to create such compounds.
In 1950 Elion invented 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP), which became one of the first drugs to fight cancer successfully by interfering with cancer cells' nucleic acid. It worked especially well against childhood leukemia, a blood cell cancer that formerly had killed its victims within a few months. When combined with other anticancer drugs, 6-MP now cures about 80 percent of children with some forms of leukemia.
Another compound Elion developed in her cancer research was called allopurinol. Because it can prevent the formation of uric acid, allopurinol has become the standard treatment for a painful disease called gout, in which crystals of uric acid are deposited in a person's joints.
Work on another breakthrough began in 1969, when Elion sent John Bauer, a researcher at the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories in England, a new drug she had created that was related to a known virus-killing compound. At Elion's suggestion that he test her drug against a dangerous group of viruses called herpesviruses, he found that it stopped their growth. Elion and her coworkers then launched a search for variants of the drug that would kill herpesviruses even better than the original compound. In 1974 a Burroughs Wellcome researcher, Howard Schaeffer, synthesized a drug called acyclovir, which was 100 times more effective against herpesviruses than Elion's first drug.
As Hitchings and Elion developed drug after drug, they advanced together within Burroughs Wellcome. Finally in 1967 Elion was made head of her own laboratory, the newly created Department of Experimental Therapy. Although she had always enjoyed working with Hitchings, she was glad to have more independence. When Burroughs Wellcome moved to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, in 1970, Elion moved with it. Her laboratory became a “mini-institute” with many sections.
Gertrude Elion officially retired in 1983, but her scientific legacy lived on. Workers from her team, using approaches she developed, discovered azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug approved for the treatment of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Elion's received her greatest honors after her retirement. On October 17, 1988, she learned that she had won the Nobel Prize. In 1991 she was given a place in the Inventors' Hall of Fame, the first woman to be so honored. She also received the National Medal of Science that year. She is included in the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame as well. In 1997 Elion received the Lemelson/MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. Elion died on February 21, 1999.