The First Breakthroughs
Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
After several years of painstaking research, Elion finally developed a compound that interfered with the replication of leukemia cells. Although it was too toxic to be truly effective, it showed that she was on the right track. She continued to experiment, eventually formulating and testing over 100 purine compounds.
Finally, in 1950, Elion synthesized 6-Mercaptopurine, or 6-MP. 6-MP caused complete remissions in children with leukemia, but a relapse invariably followed. The excruciating highs and lows of watching children improve and then die drove Elion to work even harder to refine the drug. As she studied the metabolism of 6-MP over the next years, she discovered that much of it was destroyed in the body, and she was able to use that knowledge to improve the workings of the drug. When 6-MP was combined with later medications, approximately 80% of child leukemia patients would be cured; prior to 6-MP, half of all children with acute leukemia died within a few months.
Elion was elated. "What greater joy can you have than to know what an impact your work has had on people's lives?" she asks. "We get letters from people all the time, from children who are living with leukemia. And you can't beat the feeling that you get from those children."
- Quote beginning "What greater joy...." from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 295.
- Remaining information from Katherine Bouton, "The Nobel Pair," New York Times Magazine, January 29, 1989: 82; Interview with Gertrude B. Elion, March 6, 1991, Academy of Achievement, accessed February 16, 2000; available at http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eli0int-1.