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Elion, Gertrude (Belle)

time cells drugs wellcome

(1918–99) US pharmacological chemist.

Elion studied biochemistry at Hunter College, New York and after graduating in 1937 worked in industry and as a high-school science teacher for 7 years. At the same time she was a part-time research student at New York University, obtaining her master’s degree in 1941. She began to work for a doctorate, but could not continue because full-time study was required for this. She gained three honorary doctorates later in life.

She joined the Burroughs Wellcome laboratory in 1944 and the next year began working with . At that time the usual path to new drugs was to synthesize variations on natural plant drugs and then to look for useful therapeutic effects when they were given to test animals. Elion and Hitchings used a different approach. They looked for differences between the biochemistry of normal human cells and the cells of bacteria and other infective agents, or of cancer cells, and then used the differences to deduce chemical structures that would damage the infective or cancerous cells only. This rational programme of drug design gave important successes for the team led by Hitchings and Elion for over 20 years, including drugs for treatment of leukaemia, malaria, gout and autoimmune disorders. They shared with the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1988. After 1967 Elion led the Wellcome group, and in 1974 she announced another major therapeutic and commercial success, the antiviral drug acyclovir–evidence of her position in research, recognized by the award of the US National Medal of Science in 1991.

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