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(April 18, 1905 - February 27, 1998)
Year of Discovery:
Hitchings Hatches Drug Design with Rational Approach
One of the most prolific pharmaceutical researchers ever, George Hitchings can be credited with saving over 5.4 million lives. Those lives saved include leukemia patients, transplant patients, malaria patients, gout patients, and even AIDS patients. What an accomplishment to transform, affect, and save so many lives! The son of a marine architect, he grew up along the west coast of the United States. The death of his father at age 12 heavily influenced his choice of science as a career. "My father died after a prolonged illness when I was twelve years old," Hitchings once wrote. "The deep impression made by this event turned my thoughts toward medicine. This objective shaped my selection of courses in high school and expressed itself when I was salutatorian at my class graduation. I chose the life of [Louis] Pasteur as the subject for my oration. The blending of Pasteur's basic research and practical results remained a goal throughout my career." He went on to the University of Washington majoring in chemistry and then on to Harvard for a Ph.D. At Harvard, he studied nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA. However, at that time, the structure of DNA hadn’t been discovered, so it was difficult to find a job that allowed him to continue that research line.
Eventually, he landed a job that let him pursue his true interest. In 1942, Burroughs-Wellcome, a pharmaceutical company hired him to research and develop drugs. In 1944, he hired Gertrude Elion and the two developed “rational” drug design. This process involved deliberately designing a new molecule with a specific structure they thought would interact with a molecule in the body to treat a specific problem. This was a new and novel approach to drug development. Prior to it, drug development was mostly trial and error.
This rational and methodical approach paid off handsomely! He accumulated 85 patents in his 30-year career. His drugs primarily affected DNA synthesis which led to anticancer drugs, drugs that would treat malaria, gout, and kidney stones, as well as drugs that suppressed the immune system. This led to drugs to prevent rejection in organ transplants, most notably kidney transplants. His methods also were used by others to develop the antiviral drug, acyclovir, and AZT, the anti-AIDS compound.
As generous as brilliant, Hitchings became director of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a non profit organization that promotes biomedical research. He founded the Triangle Community Foundation, to fulfill needs in the triangle area of North Carolina where his lab was. Towards the end of his career he devoted 1/3 of his time to philanthropic pursuits and 2/3 to science. He said of his career, “My greatest satisfaction has come from knowing that our efforts helped to save lives and relieve suffering. When I was baptised, my father held me up and dedicated my life to the service of mankind. I am very proud that, in some measure, I have been able to fulfill his hopes.”
Introduction by Martha Pat Kinney
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