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Drug discovery is an extremely exciting field of research because we get to work on therapeutics options that could change lives. In today’s date, there are many different ways to approach the problem. But where did it all begin? This is where the work of Prof. Gertrude Elion comes into the picture. Her work on the discovery of allopathic drug principles was revolutionary and changed the face of medicine. She won the award in conjunction with Prof. George Hitchings and Sir James Black.

Catching a break

Prof. Gertrude was a go-getter in her early days which is why she never stopped in her tracks due to lack of opportunities. She had a degree in Chemistry but was not hired anywhere for scientific posts. So, she took up jobs in academia as an assistant and other odd jobs as well but always looked out for her break. She finally did manage to get one at a British pharmaceutical firm now known as GlaxoSmithKline.

A novel approach to therapeutics

Back then most of the drug research was based on a trial and error approach but they decided not to go down that road. Instead, they made use of a more scientific approach. They knew that cells have DNA and in the case of diseased cells, the cellular machinery is affected. So, why not target that itself? This would disrupt that life cycle and make sure that the diseased cell is taken care of as well.

Prof. Elion with an employee at her lab in Research Triangle Park
Prof. Elion with an employee at her lab in Research Triangle Park (Source: nobelprize.org)

Her first major discovery was that of a new purine compound known as 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP). Purines and pyrimidines form the base nucleotides of DNA so a compound that interferes with them would kill the cell. This compound was found to interfere with leukemia cells and it did it work. But soon the patients relapsed because the effects of the drug didn’t last long in their body.

The rediscovery process

Disheartened with her initial results, she strived to find something soon for these patients. In the due process, she found another compound that was relatively close to 6-MP known as azathioprine. This helped in preventing organ rejection making transplantation surgeries a reality. She also found another compound known as allopurinol. This helps in removing the uric acid in the body which is a common side effect of cancer and causes fatal gout.

This was not all she discovered but she went further into the field of infectious diseases. Here, she discovered acyclovir, an antiviral that changed the entire field of virology. It was previously believed that any drug that could kill a virus would be too much for our body as well. But she proved them wrong! They went on to figure out more interventions for diseases such as chickenpox, shingles, and other viral diseases.

Impact of her discovery

It is needless to say that her work had a huge impact on the medical community. Initially, drug development was highly dependent on natural substances. But the discoveries of Prof. Gertrude Elion opened up a new avenue for synthetics formulations, which are so common these days. She also paved the way for the creation of drugs that can manage AIDS now! If you’d like to read more about how AIDS is caused, you can read more here.

Letter from a patient’s life she saved (Source: nobelprize.org)

Her name is on over 45 patents for various drugs and she has managed to save millions of lives all over the world. While she did develop multiple drugs, her main contribution was in the form of the revolutionary approach she took for the drug development process. This goes to show why giving women a space in STEM would only benefit the world that we’re in right now.

References

Gertrude B. Elion. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/gertrude-elion

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