Gertrude Elion (1918–1999) and colleague George Hitchings (1905–1998) went turn off the beaten route of trial-and-error drug breakthrough to revolutionize medicine making. Utilizing a an approach known as “rational drug design,” Elion and Hitchings were able to effectively interfere with cell growth, giving method to a number of effective drugs for dealing with leukemia, gout, malaria, herpes, and many various other illnesses.

Elion determined to dedicate her life to medication after the deaths that her grandfather from stomach cancer and also fiancÉ indigenous an inflammation the the heart lining. In 1937, she i graduated summa cum laude native Hunter College v a degree in chemistry, but her wishes of ending up being a research scientist were dashed by 15 rejections for financial assistance from graduate colleges throughout the country. Not just did she confront discrimination in academia, she also couldn’t land a job because of her gender, so she enrolled in secretarial school. Spring back, she said: “I hadn’t been mindful that any type of doors to be closed come me until I began knocking ~ above them.”

While volunteering in a chemistry lab that can only offer her a dishwashing job, an opportunity opened up up at Burroughs Wellcome Company. This permitted her to conserve money because that graduate work at brand-new York University, where she to be the just woman in her chemistry classes.

You are watching: How have chemists help fight leukemia


Elion completed she masters level in 1941, yet it wasn’t until 1944 that she would be hired together a research study chemist by Johnson & Johnson. Later on that year, Elion to be offered one more position working through nucleic mountain alongside Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome Company. She likewise enrolled as a doctoral student at Brooklyn Polytechnic academy (now Polytechnic institute of new York University), where she take it evening courses. Faced with a decision come enroll full-time to finish a Ph.D. Or to continue on together a study chemist, Elion chosen to side through the study at Wellcome v Hitchings, fairly than pursue her doctoral degree.


At the lab, Hitchings had actually been trying to find a much more “rational” method of research. The development of sulfa drugs motivated him to consider that various other substances that interfere v the line of microbes could likewise be developed as drugs. His method was to observe the distinctions in nucleic mountain (DNA and RNA) metabolism amongst protozoa, normal human cells, and also abnormal cell (e.g., cancer cells, bacteria and viruses).

Hoping to build drugs the selectively block the expansion of cancer cells and also poisonous organisms, Hitchings assigned Elion to inspection organic compounds dubbed purines—specifically, the purine bases adenine and guanine, which are building blocks of DNA. They shortly discovered, indigenous observing the duty of purines in nucleic mountain metabolism, the bacterial cells require certain purines to do DNA. Hitchings hypothesized that by avoiding those purines native entering the metabolic pathway that leads come DNA synthesis, they can stop the manufacturing of DNA and also thereby stop cell growth.

Along the way, Elion published 225 records on her findings. Through 1950, Hitchings and also Elion properly synthesized 2 compounds—diaminopurine and also thioguanine—which attract metabolic enzyme to latch top top them rather of organic purines, in order to blocking DNA production. For the very first time, a therapy that could interfere through the formation of leukemia cells was now accessible to placed Leukemia patients in remission.

While the new chemotherapy drugs proved reliable in dealing with the cancer, they were also toxic and caused serious vomiting. Elion started searching because that a less poisonous compound, trial and error over 100 purine compounds. She finally discovered 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP), i m sorry she developed by instead of one sulphur atom through an oxygen atom.


In testing, computer mouse tumors failed to grow, and also treated mouse live double as lengthy as those left untreated. Kids given the treatment went into finish remission, however they were no cured. Elion decided to emphasis on understanding the metabolism of the medicine to come up v a better solution.

Previously that year, she had found a close family member of 6-MP referred to as thioguanine. A physician found that through combining either 6-MP or thioguanine with other drugs, children with leukemia could be treated much more effectively. Today, this method—along v maintenance therapy—is responsible because that curing 80 percent of kids with Leukemia. Thioguanine is likewise used to treat acute myelocytic leukemia (AML) in adults.

In addition to 6-MP, Elion walk on to uncover a collection of medicine that assault the life cycle of main point acid, including allopurinol—which inhibits uric mountain synthesis, making it a viable therapy for gout—and azathioprine (Imuran), an effective immunosuppressive drug. Her exploration of azathioprine to be extremely crucial to medicine, due to the fact that it made feasible for people with endangered immune equipment to receive organ transplants without your body rejecting them.

In the 1960s, Hitchings and also Elion additionally found an ext success in combating transmittable diseases by targeting bacterial and also viral DNA: the development of pyramethamine, used to law malaria; and also trimethoprim (Septra), i beg your pardon treats meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial epidemic of the urinary and also respiratory tracts.

On the heels that Hitchings’ retirement in 1967, Elion ended up being head of the room of experimental Therapy. At that point, she turn her attention to antiviral task of purines. Trial and error the compound arabinosyldiaminopurine, Elion and also her aides altered sidechains to create a more active compound to interfere through the replication the the herpes virus.

The method proved effective with the synthesis of acycloguanosine, also known as acyclovir (Zovirax). This work proved the drugs can be selective. ~ above this principle, her colleagues later occurred the AIDS medicine azisothymidine (AZT). That would certainly seal her fate together a recipient of the differentiated Nobel Prize. Elion, Hitchings, and also James Whyte Black obtained the 1988 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for discovering essential principles of medicine treatment.

See more: M&Amp;M Melts In Your Mouth

Elion retirement in 1983, eight years after Hitchings. Though she was unable to complete her Ph.D., George Washington University and also Brown university awarded Elion honorary doctorates. Elion is likewise one that the few women recipients of the American chemical Society’s call Garvan Medal, vested in 1968.

Rayner-Canham, Marelene and also Geoffrey Rayner. (1998). Ladies in biochemistry. Ladies in chemistry: Their changing roles from alchemical times to the mid-twentieth century (pp. 152-156). Danvers, MA: American Chemical society and chemical Heritage Foundation. Trescott, Martha M. Women in the intellectual breakthrough of engineering: A study in persistence and also systems thought. (1990). Females of scientific research (pp. 313-314). Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana university Press. McGrayne, Sharon B. Gertrude Belle Elion. (1998). Nobel Prize ladies in Science. (pp. 279-302). Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. Gertrude Elion. (n.d.). Chemistry in History. Retrieved native