1918 - 1999

New path for drug development

The tragic death of her grandfather from cancer shaped Gertrude Elion’s life mission, to cure this devastating disease.

Although she was told that women don’t do chemistry, Gertrude had a clear objective, help others. Also, her family encouraged her to pursue high education. Thus,
after her graduation from college, and after being rejected 15 times, she finally got accepted in a master program and conducted her masters at the University of New York, while working as a teacher. Afterwards, it took some time for her to find a job, but she managed.

She started working at the Burroughs Wellcome Company with George Hitchings, and over the course of three decades, she worked synthetizing purine derivatives (organic molecules) and testing their activity against infective agents and cancer. The fruits of this work included thioguanine and mercaptopurine (treatments of leukaemia), allopurinol (treatment of gout), azathioprine (immunosuppressive drug for organ transplant), and acyclovir (treatment of herpes virus).

While it is already impressive to highlight the list of medicines that resulted from her research, Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1988 (with James Black) for their novel approach to the development of new drugs. They opted for a rational strategy instead of the standard trial-and-error. They understood that cells with rapid growth, like bacteria or cancer cells, require certain needs. Thus, targeting these needs could disrupt the growth of these cells and serve as treatment for their associated diseases.

Her biography by The Nobel Prize states: “Simply put, Elion changed the way researchers develop drugs. As a result, although she died in 1999 at the age of 81, Gertrude Elion is still saving lives.”

In her book ‘Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries’, Magdolna Hargittai describes Gertrude Elion’s office walls displaying many quotes or letters from people who thanked and admired her. This was Gertrude’s greatest success, the happiness and wellbeing of people.

Written by: Enriqueta Vallejo-Yagüe.