From may­on­naise to es­sen­tial medicine

One of the 20th cen­tury’s great­est chemists once worked in the food in­dus­try. Luck­ily, her tal­ents weren’t re­stricted to test­ing sand­wich spreads.

Cosmos - - Cosmos Science Club - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

THINK OF LEUKAEMIA and the sub­ject of may­on­naise doesn’t im­me­di­ately spring to mind. Yet had fate not in­ter­vened, one of the most im­por­tant re­searchers into the na­ture and treat­ment of blood cancer might to­day be known – if at all – as sim­ply a master of mayo.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City in 1918. Her fa­ther had been a child im­mi­grant from Lithua­nia, and her mother had ar­rived, aged 14, from Rus­sia in 1914.

When Gertrude was born her par­ents were com­fort­ably off, mainly be­cause her fa­ther, Robert, had built up a healthy den­tal prac­tice. “My first seven years were spent in a large apart­ment in Man­hat­tan where my fa­ther had his den­tal of­fice, with our liv­ing quar­ters ad­join­ing it,” she later re­called.

In 1929, how­ever, life for the Elion fam­ily took a big turn for the worse when they lost most of their money in the Wall Street Crash. This lim­ited Gertrude’s op­tions for fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion af­ter high school, but for­tu­nately she gained ad­mis­sion, at age 15, to a nearby free col­lege on the back of her good grades. Her grand­fa­ther’s death from cancer spurred her choice to ma­jor in chem­istry.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, she had no means to pay to at­tend grad­u­ate school and her em­ploy­ment prospects were bleak. Work was scarce for ev­ery­one dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, and many po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers could not ac­cept the idea a wo­man could be a good chemist. She scored sev­eral stints of un­paid and tem­po­rary work as a lab as­sis­tant, then switched to re­lief high school teach­ing while also study­ing at nights in her quest for a Master’s de­gree in chem­istry.

Then World War II broke out and sud­denly – with men join­ing the fight­ing forces en masse – many more jobs be­came avail­able to women. Elion gave up the world of free­lance sci­ence teach­ing and took a job with food man­u­fac­turer Quaker Maid. Her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­cluded test­ing the acid­ity of pick­les and mak­ing sure egg yolk go­ing into may­on­naise was the right colour.

There she might have re­mained, had not her ever-cu­ri­ous mind driven her to seek new chal­lenges. In 1944 she found a po­si­tion as a bio­chemist at the re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries of Bur­roughs Well­come, which would later be­come Glax­osmithk­line phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany.

She would re­main with the com­pany, even af­ter of­fi­cially re­tir­ing in 1983, un­til her death in 1999 at the age of 81.

Along the way, she would win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. The prize, shared with col­leagues James Black and Ge­orge Hitch­ings, was awarded in recog­ni­tion of re­search that, to quote the ci­ta­tion, “demon­strated differences in nu­cleic acid me­tab­o­lism be­tween nor­mal hu­man cells, cancer cells, pro­to­zoa, bac­te­ria and virus”.

The trio’s dis­cov­er­ies went far fur­ther than sim­ply es­tab­lish­ing the ways in which dif­fer­ent cells op­er­ate. They put their find­ings to work and cre­ated sev­eral crit­i­cally im­por­tant drugs sav­ing mil­lions of lives.

Elion played a cen­tral role in the de­vel­op­ment of thiogua­nine and 6-mer­cap­top­urine, used to treat leukaemia. Thiogua­nine is still on the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s List of Es­sen­tial Medicines.

Her team also de­vel­oped pyrimethamine, a malaria treat­ment, and al­lop­uri­nol, used to treat gout. An­other of Elion’s drugs, aza­thio­prine, works to stop the im­mune sys­tem from re­ject­ing new or­gans – with­out it, there could be no trans­plant surgery. If that wasn’t enough, in 1977 her team’s dis­cov­er­ies were adapted to cre­ate acy­clovir, the first ef­fec­tive treat­ment against the her­pes virus.

At one stage in her early years at Well­come, Elion was faced with a very tough choice: she was told that if she wanted to com­plete her PHD she would have to quit work and study full-time. She opted to drop her stud­ies and stay at the lab – a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion at a time when fe­male sci­en­tists were of­ten con­sid­ered in­fe­rior to male ones.

“Years later, when I re­ceived three hon­orary doc­tor­ate de­grees from Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, Brown Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, I de­cided that per­haps that de­ci­sion had been the right one af­ter all,” she ob­served wryly at the time of ac­cept­ing her Nobel Prize.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION Jef­frey Phillips

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