American researchers Gertrude Elion and George H. Hitchings won the 1988 Nobel Prize in medicine today for discoveries leading to drugs that treat AIDS and herpes.
Sir James W. Black of Great Britain shared the award for research that led to a beta blocker drug for heart disease and a drug for peptic ulcers. Black quipped today that the prize came as such a shock that “I wished I had my beta blockers handy.”
The Americans’ research also led to the development of drugs for the treatment of leukemia, malaria, and to fight the rejection of transplanted organs, said the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute.
Elion, 70, a New York City native, and Hitchings, 83, born in Hoquiam, Wash., are affiliated with Wellcome Research Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Black, 64, born in Scotland, works at King’s College Hospital Medical School at the University of London.
“I’m pleased more for my descendants than I am for myself,” Hitchings said in a telephone interview from his office.
Elion said from her home in Chapel Hill, N.C.: “Surprised is not exactly the word. “Disbelieving is the right word. . . . I didn’t even know I had been nominated.”
Breaks New Ground
The work of Elion and Hitchings broke new ground in finding the difference in the processing of genetic material between normal cells and cancer cells, protozoa, bacteria and viruses, the Karolinska Institute said.
Knowing those differences allowed researchers to attack disease-causing organisms by interfering with their replication, the announcement said.
The institute said that among the drugs developed from their ideas is azidothymidine, or AZT, which has had the best-documented results in the treatment of AIDS, the institute said. AZT is the only federally approved drug for treating acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the United States.
“We are still harvesting the fruits of what they determined almost 40 years ago,” said Folke Sjoqvist, a member of the Nobel Assembly.
Their discoveries in the late 1940s led to a variety of drugs, like 6-mercaptopurine in 1951 for leukemia. Another breakthrough in applying their research came in 1977, when the first effective drug was developed for treating herpes virus infections.
The three winners will share a cash award of about $390,000.