A Pioneer of Drug Development

Tomorrow is the 81st birthday of Gertrude Belle Elion, a biochemist who discovered several new drugs that saved thousands of lives and whose research revolutionized drug discovery.

Despite sex discrimination and financial difficulties during the Depression, Elion rose to prominence as the discoverer of various drugs to treat then-incurable diseases. In 1950, while a researcher at the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, Elion synthesized 6-mercaptopurine, a treatment for leukemia that dramatically changed cancer therapy. A later derivative of this compound, called Imuran, is still used to prevent rejection of kidney transplants. Another derivative, called Allopurinol, is applied to prevent kidney blockage in gout patients and in cancer patients receiving radiation or chemotherapy.

In 1983, the year after she retired, Elion's research group announced the development of AZT, an important drug used to treat AIDS. Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1988 for her contributions to drug development. She shared the prize with colleague George Hitchings and Sir James Black of the University of London. The three broke away from the standard practice of developing new drugs by chemically modifying naturally available compounds; instead, they adopted a more rational approach, based on understanding of the basic and biochemical processes of a disease.

[Source: Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, Eds., Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary (Greenwood Press, 1997).]