WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Gertrude B. Elion (January 23, 1918 to February 21, 1999)

Posted January 22, 2008 6:00 AM by Sharkles

Gertrude Belle Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist. Holder of 45 patents and 23 honorary degrees, Elion co-developed two of the first successful drugs for the treatment of Leukemia (thioguanine and mercaptopurine) and azathioprine, which is used as an agent to prevent the rejection of kidney transplants and to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Elion played a major role in the development of allopurinol for the treatment of gout and of acyclovir, the first selective antiviral agent that was effective against herpes virus infections. In 1988, Dr. Gertrude B. Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City on January 23, 1918. Elion's father had emigrated from Lithuania to the United States at the age of 12 and graduated from New York University School of Dentistry in 1914. Her mother had emigrated from Russia and was 19 when she married Elion's father. When she was seven, Gertrude and her parents moved from their Manhattan apartment to the Bronx. Elion describes her childhood as a happy one, attending public schools where her insatiable thirst for knowledge made her an excellent student. She says that at age 15, when her grandfather died from cancer, she decided she wanted to go into medicine to cure cancer.

In 1933, she attended Hunter College, majoring in chemistry. Elion received a Bachelors of Science in chemistry from Hunter College in 1937 and a Masters in Science in chemistry from New York University in 1941. During this time she struggled to get a graduate research position, but was unable to because she was a woman. After getting her Masters in 1941, because of WWII, many jobs normally held by men were available and she was able to get a job doing quality control for a food company. After a year and a half, she became bored with the repetitive nature of the job and applied for research jobs. Elion eventually ended up working for Dr. George Hitchings, who guided her, encouraged her natural inquisitiveness, and gave her more and more responsibility.

Much of Gertrude's work involved purines and purine analogs, synthesizing a large number of purines with Dr. Hitchings. These included 6-mercaptopurine (6MP), which had an antitumor effect without undue toxicity in children with acute leukemia. It was so effective that the FDA approved its use in late 1953, only 7 months after the clinical trial data had been made public. Rather than trial and error, Elion and Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) used the differences in biochemistry between normal cells and pathogens to design drugs that killed or inhibited the latter without harming the former. Elion's work with purines produced many drugs that are used today. Researchers following her methods later developed the AIDS drug AZT.

In 1983, Elion retired and became an advisor to the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research. She remained a consultant for her former employer. In 1988, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the techniques she developed for identifying effective drug treatments. Gertrude B. Elion died in North Carolina in 1999 at age 81.

Resources:
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1988/elion-autobio.html
http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/gelion.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_B._Elion

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