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Two Americans, Briton share medical Nobel.

Two Americans, Briton share medical Nobel

Gertrude B. Elion was getting dressed at 6:30 a.m. Oct. 17 when a journalist called, congratulating the new Nobel laureate. "I said, 'You're kidding; this must be a joke,'" Elion recalls. "It took me a day before I really began to believe it."

But the telegram from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm confirmed that Elion would share this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings, her former co-worker at Burroughs Wellcome Research Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and with Sir James W. Black of King's College Hospital Medical School in London. The Nobel committee cited the three scientists for "their discovery of important principles for drug treatment," creating a "rational" method for designing new compounds.

"It is the very first time scientists working on cancer treatment won the medical Nobel," says John Laszlo of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

Elion, 70, and Hitchings, 83, together set out in 1945 to discover how normal human cell growth differs from that of bacteria, parasites, viruses and cancer cells in hopes of finding ways to selectively kill disease-causing life forms in humans. Sticking to this idea, the scientists developed, over decades, treatments for leukemia, malaria, bacterial infections, herpes, gout, autoimmune diseases and transplant rejections.

In the early 1950s, Elion and Hitchings developed thioguanine and 6-mercaptopurine, which helped cure childhood leukemia. The first organ transplants became possible several years later when they created azathioprine, which today treats autoimmune diseases as well. In the early 1960s came allopurinol, a treatment for gout. In 1977, a team led by Elion developed acyclovir, the first effective herpes treatment. Other scientists applied the ideas of Elion and Hitchings in working with zidovudine (AZT), the only federally approved AIDS treatment.

Elion says she got a "high" from each drug discovery. "It's hard to choose among your children," she says. "Each drug was wonderful, each one rewarding. It's been rewarding all along."

Black, 64, was applauded for work on drugs that block receptor molecules on cells. In 1964, he engineered a drug, propranolot, that would bind to a so-called beta receptor, which normally responds to epinephrine and norepinephrine. Propranolol prevented the heart-stimulating effect of these hormones, reducing stress on heart disease patients. It is now used to treat heart attacks and other forms of heart disease, high blood pressure and migraines.

In 1972, Black identified a histamine receptor, [H.sub.2], key to gastric acid secretion. In 1975, he developed cimetidine, a receptor blocker that enables physicians to treat stomach and duodenal ulcers non-surgically.
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Title Annotation:Gertrude B. Elion, George H. Hitchings, James W. Black
Author:Wickelgren, Ingrid
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 22, 1988
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