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Gertrude Elion Recognized by Lemelson-MIT Awards Program

NEW YORK, NY (April 9, 1997) — Nobel Prize-winning chemist and New York City native Gertrude Elion, now of Chapel Hill, NC, has been named the 1997 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Elion helped create two of the first successful drugs to combat acute leukemia (Purinethol® and Thioguanine®) and holds 45 patents for discovering numerous lifesaving drugs from 1944 to 1983. More than half a million transplant patients in the last 34 years have benefited from her team's discovery of azathioprine (Imuran®), which prevents the body from rejecting foreign tissue.

The announcement was made today at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City by Professor Lester C. Thurow, internationally renowned economist of MIT's Sloan School of Management and chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Board, which oversees the selection process. Elion will be honored at a ceremony the evening of April 10 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (Washington, DC) for her contributions to American invention and innovation.

Independent inventor Dr. Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, established the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program at MIT in 1994 to recognize the nation's most talented contemporary inventors in order to promote positive role models for American youngsters. The Program's Lifetime Achievement Award honors individuals for career-long accomplishments in innovation.

"She deserves acclaim not only for her achievements as a research chemist but also for her devoted and inspirational mentoring of young students, and especially young women," said Charles M. Vest, president of MIT. Thurow called Elion, "a national hero — she has improved our quality of life in the most direct way — by fighting diseases."

Elion was inspired to combat fatal diseases and infections after her beloved grandfather died from cancer and losing her fiancé to a bacterial infection. Elion graduated from New York's Hunter College in 1937, when opportunities for women scientists were scarce. "When I first began my career I was told that I would be a distracting influence in the lab, " Elion recalls. "If young women think it is hard for females in the sciences nowadays, they should have seen it 50 years ago." Until the door to the science world opened for her, Elion worked as a receptionist and taught nurses and high school students.

As a Lifetime Achievement Award winner Elion said, "This Award proves the power of perseverance and belief in oneself. I want to get sick people well and that's what I've done." Her history is a digest of groundbreaking discoveries that revolutionized the field of scientific research — all the more striking because Elion never received a PhD.

In 1944 Johnson & Johnson hired Elion for her first job in true scientific research; however the unit closed six months later. That same year she embarked on her 40 year-long legendary career at Burroughs Wellcome (now Glaxo Wellcome). Working alongside biochemist Dr. George Hitchings, Elion and he created the first false DNA blocks that interrupted the growth of cancer cells, bacteria, parasites and viruses.

By the 1950s and '60s, Elion's team realized numerous breakthroughs that challenged accepted theories in the scientific community, developing acyclovir (Zovirax®), the first medication that safely blocks a virus, and allopurinol (Zyloric® or Zyloprim®), an effective treatment for gout and some of the side effects of chemotherapy. Although not involved in the discovery, her former team, following her research methods, developed the world's first medicine for AIDS.

A scientist of international acclaim, Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in medicine with colleague George Hitchings, and researcher Sir James Black, for her discoveries of treatments for acute leukemia, malaria, bacterial infections, herpes, gout, autoimmune diseases and transplant rejection. She is one of only ten women awarded the Nobel in science and one of the few recipients in science to win without a doctorate.

Today, at age 79, Elion remains committed to encouraging young scientists and inventors through her mentorship to medical students, lectureships, scholarships for young chemists, and her involvement in national and international committees, including the World Health Organization.

The Lifetime Achievement Award is part of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, which also bestows the Lemelson-MIT Prize, an annual, $500,000 award — the world's largest single prize for invention and innovation — to a United States citizen or permanent resident (or qualified team of two) who demonstrates excellence in creativity, invention and/or innovation in medicine and health care; energy and environment; telecommunication and computing; and consumer products, durable goods and industrial products. Last year's Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker and pacemaker batteries. The first winners of the Lifetime Achievement Awards were William Hewlett and David Packard, co-founders of Hewlett-Packard Corp.

Read more about Gertrude Elion.

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