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The pioneering women of blood cancer research: part two

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06 Mar 2019

Here's part two of our International Women’s Day series, celebrating the life of Professor Gertrude Elion, who developed the first treatment for childhood leukaemia.

Born in New York in 1918, Professor Gertrude Elion was a remarkable figure in the world of medicine.

Later in her career she would discover the first treatment for childhood leukaemia – but on her journey to recognition she would fight discrimination every step of the way.

When Gertrude was 15 her grandfather died of stomach cancer, instilling in her a lifetime dedication to curing the disease. She worked hard for everything during her life, and was awarded her chemistry masters in 1941.

Not taking no for an answer

This should have marked the start of her illustrious career, but Gertrude would be rejected for graduate research positions no fewer than 15 times because she was a woman. She summed up her feelings later, saying: “I hadn’t been aware that any doors were closed to me until I started knocking on them”.

Unable to get a job, Gertrude almost turned her back on chemistry, and enrolled on a secretarial course. But she continued to hope.

Gertrude kept the flame alive by volunteering in a chemistry lab that, despite her education, could only offer her a dishwashing job. And six weeks later, her luck would change.

An opportunity arose at Burroughs Wellcome Pharmaceutical Company, now known as GlaxoSmithKline. She reached for it with both hands. The role meant she could work in a relevant field, while saving money for her graduate work at New York University – where she was the only women in her chemistry classes.

Making a difficult choice

In 1944 Gertrude was presented with a tough decision – complete her Ph.D. or forge on with a career as a research chemist as assistant to George Hitchings. She chose the latter, hoping to return to finish her Ph.D. someday in the future.

Gertrude would never become a doctor. But her achievements in the field of blood cancer research would erase any nagging doubts that she’d made the wrong decision.

George Hitchings hoped to develop drugs that would selectively block the growth of cancer cells. He assigned Gertrude to investigate organic compounds called purines, in particular adenine and guanine – the building blocks of DNA. Hitchings believed that these could be harnessed to stop the production of DNA, and the accompanying cell growth.

By the year 1950, they had successfully synthesized two compounds that blocked DNA production – diaminopurine and thioguanine. This led to a new treatment which could stop the formation of leukaemia cells. While these drugs were ground-breaking, they were in effect poison, and led to harsh side-effects. Gertrude finally discovered 6-mercaptopurine, a less toxic form of the drug.

The first treatment for childhood leukaemia

This was the first treatment for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and a combination of mercaptopurine and other drugs is still used to this day to treat most children with leukaemia.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Gertrude's contribution to the development of new medicines was vast. As well as her work on leukaemia, she developed the first immunosuppressive drugs to prevent organ transplant rejection, the first effective antiviral drug to treat herpes, as well as a range of lifesaving drugs for malaria, meningitis and septicaemia.

Her lifetime of achievement was recognised in 1988.

40 years after being repeatedly rejected for research positions; after volunteering as a lab dishwasher; after almost turning her back on research; Professor Gertrude Elion would receive the world’s most prestigious award for science – the 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. She officially retired in 1983, having saved countless lives.

> Read part one of our international women's day series, the story of Dr Jane C Wright

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