Gertrude Belle Elion Inventor of AIDS drug AZT received Nobel Prize in Physiology

Gertrude Belle Elion – Inventor of AIDS drug AZT

Article on Gertrude Belle Elion

Biography & Contributions

Gertrude Belle Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist born on January 23, 1918 – died on February 21, 1999.

Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.

Elion and Hitchings pointedly examined the difference between the biochemistry of normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens (disease-causing agents).They then used this information to formulate drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of a particular pathogen, leaving the human host’s normal cells undamaged.

The two researchers’ new emphasis on understanding basic biochemical and physiological processes enabled them to eliminate much guesswork and wasted effort typical previously in developing new therapeutic drugs.

Elion's inventions include: 6-mercaptopurine, the first treatment for leukemia, Azathioprine for organ transplants, Allopurinol for gout disease, Pyrimethamine for malaria, Trimethoprim for meningitis, septicemia, Acyclovir for viral herpes and Nelarabine for cancer treatment.


Azathioprine is an immunosuppressive drug used in organ transplantation and autoimmune diseases and belongs to the chemical class of purine analogues. Azathioprine is used alone or in combination with other immunosuppressive therapy to prevent rejection following organ transplantation, and to treat an array of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, pemphigus, systemic lupus erythematosus, Behcet's disease, and other forms of vasculitis, autoimmune hepatitis, atopic dermatitis, myasthenia gravis, neuromyelitis optica (Devic's disease), restrictive lung disease, and others.

Azathioprine is used to prevent rejections of kidney or liver allografts, usually in conjunction with other therapies including corticosteroids, other immunosuppressants, and local radiation therapy.


Allopurinol is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, a list of the most important medication needed in a basic health system. It is a medication used primarily to treat excess uric acid in the blood and its complications, including chronic gout.


Pyrimethamine is commonly used as an antimalarial drug and to treat Toxoplasma gondii infections, particularly when combined with the sulfonamide antibiotic sulfadiazine when treating HIV-positive individuals. It works by inhibiting folic acid metabolism via dihydrofolate reductase.

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