Gertrude “Trudy” Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black for their use of innovative methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs. This new method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial-and-error. Her work led to the creation of the AIDS drug AZT. Her well known works also include the development of the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used to fight rejection in organ transplants, and the first successful antiviral drug, acyclovir (ACV), used in the treatment of herpes infection.
Early life and education
Elion was born in New York City on January 23, 1918, to parents Robert Elion, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant and a dentist, and Bertha Cohen, a Polish immigrant. Her family lost their wealth after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.(p64) Elion was an excellent student who graduated from Walton High School at the age of 15. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try to cure the disease. She was Phi Beta Kappa at Hunter College, which she was able to attend for free due to her grades, graduating summa cum laude in 1937 with a degree in chemistry. She earned her M.Sc. from New York University in 1941, while working as a high school teacher during the day time. In an interview after receiving her Nobel Prize, she stated that she believed the sole reason she was able to further her education as a young female was because she was able to attend Hunter College for free. Her fifteen financial aid applications for graduate school were turned down due to gender bias, so she enrolled in a secretarial school, where she attended only six weeks before she found a job.(p65)
Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a food quality supervisor at A&P supermarkets(p65) and for a food lab in New York, testing the acidity of pickles and the color of egg yolk going into mayonnaise. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Tuckahoe, New York. Hitchings was using a new way of developing drugs, by intentionally imitating natural compounds instead of through trial and error. He believed that if he could trick cancer cells into accepting artificial compounds for their growth, they could be destroyed without also destroying normal cells.(p65) She began to work with purines, and in 1950, she developed the anti-cancer drugs tioguanine and mercaptopurine.(p66)
She pursued graduate studies at night school at New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute), but after several years of long-range commuting, she was informed that she would no longer be able to continue her doctorate on a part-time basis, but would need to give up her job and go to school full-time. Elion made a critical decision in her life, and stayed with her job and give up the pursuit of her doctorate. She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D. from New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Polytechnic University of New York) in 1989 and an honorary S.D. degree from Harvard University in 1998.
Soon after graduating from Hunter College, Elion met Leonard Canter, an outstanding statistics student at City College of New York (CCNY). They planned to marry, but Leonard became ill. On June 25, 1941, he died from bacterial endocarditis, an infection of his heart valves. In her Nobel interview, she stated that this furthered her drive to become a research scientist and pharmacologist.
Elion never married or had children.(p65) However, her brother, whom she was close with, married and had two sons and a daughter that she took pride in being able to watch grow. She listed her hobbies as photography, travel and listening to music. After Burroughs Wellcome moved to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Elion moved to nearby Chapel Hill. Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81.(p76)
Career and research
While Elion had many jobs to support herself and put herself through school, Elion had also worked for the National Cancer Institute, American Association for Cancer Research and World Health Organization, among other organizations. From 1967 to 1983, she was the Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy for Burroughs Wellcome.
Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings discovered new drugs using rational drug design, which used the differences in biochemistry and metabolism between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents such as cancer cells, protozoa, bacteria, and viruses) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming human cells. The drugs they developed are used to treat a variety of maladies, such as leukemia, malaria, lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, gout, organ transplant rejection (azathioprine), as well as herpes (acyclovir, which was the first selective and effective drug of its kind). Most of Elion’s early work came from the use and development of purine derivatives.Elion’s inventions include:
- Mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia, also used in organ transplantation.
- Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.
- Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.
- Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
- Trimethoprim (Proloprim, Monoprim, others), for meningitis, sepsis, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
- Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.
- Nelarabine for cancer treatment.
In 1967, she occupied the position of the head of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy and officially retired in 1983. Despite her retirement, Elion continued working almost full-time at the lab, and oversaw the adaptation of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS.
Selected works by Gertrude B. Elion
- Antagonists of Nucleic Acid Derivatives. VI. Purines, with George H. Hitchings and Henry Vanderwerff. Journal of Biological Chemistry 192 (1951): 505-518.
- Interaction of Anticancer Drugs with Enzymes. In Pharmacological Basis of Cancer Chemotherapy (1975).
- Selectivity of Action of an Antiherpetic Agent, 9-(2-hydroxyethoxymethyl) guanine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 74 (1977): 5716-5720.
- The Synthesis of 6-Thioguanine, with George H. Hitchings. Journal of the American Chemical Society 77 (1955): 1676.
Awards and honors
In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black for discoveries of “important new principles of drug treatment”. Elion was the fifth female Nobel laureate in Medicine and the ninth in science in general, and one of only a handful of laureates without a doctoral degree. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990, a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991 and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991.
Her awards include the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968), the Sloan-Kettering Institute Judd Award (1983), the American Chemical Society Distinguished Chemist Award (1985), the American Association of Cancer Research Cain Award (1985), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (1990), the National Medal of Science (1991), and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). In 1991 Elion became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame also in 1991. In 1992, she was elected to the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame. She was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1995.