Gertrude Elion at the Forefront of AIDS Treatment


Gertrude Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist well-known for discovering many medications, including medications for HIV/AIDS, herpes, immunity disorders, and leukemia. Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that later led to the development of the first drug used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS: Zidovudine (AZT). She and her colleague, George H. Hitchings, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988.

The American mobilization for World War II gave Elion a chance to enter the pharmaceutical industry by opening up many positions to women in technical and medical fields. In 1944, she became an assistant chemist in the laboratory of Hitchings in Tuckahoe, New York. There, she began to investigate modifiers of nucleic-acid metabolism ten years before the discovery of the double helix.

At that time, the idea of producing drugs designed to treat viral conditions seemed odd; almost all efforts had been bent toward the development of vaccines capable of preventing such conditions. The aim was to intervene at the beginning of the reproductive cycle of viruses. Elion and Hitchings were convinced that it should be possible to arrest the growth of rapidly dividing cells—bacteria or cancerous cells—by means of antagonists of the nucleic-acid bases their division depended on.

At the beginning of the 1950s, methotrexate was the only anticancer drug available. A leukemic child had a life expectancy of only three to four months once diagnosed, and only 30% of children survived for more than a year. In 1951, Elion and Hitchings synthesized and evaluated more than one-hundred purine derivatives acting as inhibitors of purine utilization.

Following toxicological testing of these agents on animals, clinical trials were carried out with children suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Consequently, in 1953, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of developed drugs for acute leukemia in patients of this type, and the median survival rate for children thus treated rose from three to twelve months.

Elion and Hitchings worked together for four decades developing drugs that not only were effective against leukemia, but also against autoimmune disorders, urinary-tract infections, gout, malaria, and viral herpes. Their success was due primarily to their innovative research methods, which marked a radical departure from the trial-and-error approach taken by previous pharmacologists.

They pointedly examined the difference between the biochemistry of normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens (disease-causing agents). They then used this information to formulate drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of a particular pathogen, leaving the human host’s normal cells undamaged. The two researchers’ new emphasis on understanding basic biochemical and physiological processes enabled them to eliminate much guesswork and wasted effort typical previously in developing new therapeutic drugs.

After decades of scientific research, Elion officially retired in 1983; yet, she helped oversee the development of Azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug used in the treatment of AIDS. It is a remarkable fact that, more than fifty years after she began her work, the discoveries of this extraordinary pharmacologist were still indispensable and unsurpassed therapeutic tools. Although she was the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she was the first who was neither a physician nor the holder of a doctoral degree.


About Us

SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
Continue reading

Contact Us

P.O. Box 138, Chatby 21526, Alexandria, EGYPT
Tel.: +(203) 4839999
Ext.: 1737–1781

Become a member

© 2022 | Bibliotheca Alexandrina