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Born on this Day A Rational Reward
23 January 2017

A Rational Reward

Until the 1940s, drugs were often developed through a trial-and-error approach using natural compounds. Chemist Gertrude Elion helped to pioneer a more systematic approach. She worked from the bottom up, designing and constructing new molecules for specific therapeutic goals. This allowed her to target molecules exclusively to bacteria, cancer cells and viruses, leaving healthy human cells unharmed. Elion was motivated by her grandfather’s death from stomach cancer when she was 15. She worked with researcher George Hitchings to develop the first effective drug to treat the most common type of childhood leukaemia. At the time, in the 1950s, children typically survived for just four months. Today, with treatment, around 80% survive long-term. In recognition of their work, Elion, Hitchings and collaborator James Black, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. Elion said, “The Nobel Prize is fine, but the drugs I’ve developed are rewards in themselves.”

Gertrude Elion was born on this day in 1918

Written by Deborah Oakley

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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