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Gertrude B. Elion Develops Drugs for Malaria and AIDS

Gertrude B Elion had an impressive career and she helped develop drugs to treat many major diseases which included malaria and AIDS.


Gertrude B Elion was born in New York in 1918. She graduated from the Hunter College in 1937 and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941. She was unable to obtain a graduate research position and hence she worked as a lab assistant and a high school teacher. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Welcome pharmaceutical company which is now known as GlaxoSmithKline. She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from the Polytechnic University of New York in 1989 and obtained honorary SD degree from Harvard University in 1998.

She has been associated with the National Cancer Institute in many capacities right from 1960 when she served on one of its study sections, to serving later on a number of its advisory committees and the Board of Scientific Counsellors for the Division of Cancer Treatment, and even as a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board.

Development of Drugs

Gertrude B Elion always used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens or disease causing agents instead of simply relying on trial and error method. She used this novel way to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells.

Gertrude B Elion has many inventions to her hat. Here are some of them:

  • 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol) which was the first treatment for leukaemia.
  • Azathioprine (Imuran) which was the first immune-suppressive agent and was used for organ transplants.
  • Allopurinol (Zyloprim) which was used for gout.
  • Pyrimethamine (Daraprim) which was used to treat malaria.
  • Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax) which was used to treat viral herpes.

In the year 1988, Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with Hitchings and Sir James Black. Other awards that Elion has to her credit include the National Medal of Science in the year 1991 and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in the year 1997. In the year 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In fact, in Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, there is a separate chapter that is devoted to her. Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999. She was aged 81. She had moved to the Research Triangle in 1970, and for a time served as a research professor at Duke University.

Gertrude Elion thus had an impressive career and she helped develop drugs to treat many major diseases which included malaria and AIDS.

Tags :     malaria drugs     AIDS drugs    


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