Like many scientists, George Hitchings and Gertrude “Trudy” Elion aren’t exactly household names, despite their incredible achievements. They are best known for winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. Together, they created innovative drug treatments for leukemia, malaria, AIDS, and more. Those familiar with the history of Triangle Community Foundation may also recognize George Hitchings’ name; he started the Foundation with an idea, $1,000, and then later, his award winnings from the Nobel Prize.
Their groundbreaking work has changed hundreds of thousands of lives for the better. And thanks to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, their legacies continue to have an impact on scientific research and the next generation of scientists, today.
The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) was originally formed as the charitable arm for Burroughs Wellcome and Co., a pharmaceutical research company (now known as GSK) where Hitchings and Elion first began their work together. In 1994, BWF received an endowment and became an independent foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences.
Hitchings and Elion were both inspirations in BWF’s mission. Hitchings himself served as BWF’s chair from 1974 until 1990. Elion was also very involved in the Fund’s operations. When Hitchings died in 1998, BWF decided to set up a charitable fund at the Foundation in his honor, but they were not yet sure how to direct the funds. A year later, Elion also passed away.
“Trudy [Elion] was a real role model to a lot of us at the Fund,” says Victoria McGovern, Senior Program Officer at BWF. She laughs. “We knew exactly what kind of award she’d want set up in her name.”
Elion was committed to promoting the careers of young women scientists. And, despite its location in Research Triangle Park, BWF does not target local universities in its grantmaking. With these two ideas in mind, the Fund shaped their two new awards at the Foundation: the George H. Hitchings New Investigator Award in Health Research for veterinary students at NC State University and the Gertrude B. Elion Mentored Medical Student Research Award for female clinical and doctorate students at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
BWF’s thoughtful approach has paid off. These grants are almost magical for the students who receive them. Compared to large research grants like those from the National Institute for Health, ten thousand dollars may not seem like much. But for young scientists, these scholarships are a launch-pad for their careers. They offer a unique space for flexibility and creativity.
Kelli Gerken can attest to that. A graduate student of veterinary medicine at NC State University and a 2018 recipient of the Hitchings Award, Gerken studies human behavior toward animal products and health. The Hitchings award allowed her to travel to Ethiopia, where she worked to create a human-centered design project focused on female dairy farmers in Addis Ababa. The goal was to implement trainings that help women teach each other and create safer practices for their work.
“Seeing the people and being in the field first-hand completely changes the research,” says Gerken. She already plans to return to Ethiopia over winter break to continue her work. “I have something I am really passionate about now, thanks to this award.” And the female farmers she works with have safer practices, better products, and healthier cows.
Women in Science
Elion got her toehold in the world of scientific and pharmaceutical research during World War II. For years, labs turned her away because she was a woman. Then the war came, and with it came a shortage of chemists, so she was finally able to get a job in a laboratory. Once the war ended, Elion had to struggle to keep her job in the male-dominated field. Today, the field of medical research is still largely populated by men, but that tide is shifting.
When Amy Wisdom received an Elion award in 2016, she was new to her field. An MD/PhD candidate at Duke University, Wisdom works in a cancer biology lab, where she focuses on the use of immunotherapy in soft tissue sarcoma. “I was the first person studying the immune response within my lab,” says Wisdom. “There were experts in cancer and radiation, but not immunology. “
With the Elion award, Wisdom was able to go to the foremost conference on immunology. She brought what she learned back to her lab and infused it in her work, spreading the benefits of her award throughout her community.
She also began thinking more about the role of women in science. “The award started an awareness in my mind that female representation in science was an issue,” she says. Wisdom was one of the early organizers of Advocates for MD-PhD Women in Physician Science, a student group based out of UNC and Duke that supports and mentors women in their field.
Like Elion, Wisdom feels that diversity in the sciences will lead to greater research capacity and creativity. “We need people of all perspectives to contribute,” she says. “Women are smart, and they have important scientific insight. We need to feel like we can be involved.”
Lee Hong, a 2017 Elion Award recipient, echoed the sentiments from Wisdom on women. “[As a woman] in science, it can be hard to feel like you belong,” says Hong. “You don’t see a lot of people who look like you or have the same concerns as you.”
Hong is also working toward her MD/PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and she is a current member of the Advocates leadership team. In her research, Hong focuses on developing a new type of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s own T-cells to target cancer within the body.
“The good news about immunotherapy is that it seems to work!” says Hong. “But the current limitation is that it doesn’t last very long in the patient’s body.” Hong hopes her research will lead to greater longevity for immunotherapies. She wants patients to spend less time and money receiving infusions.
With the support of the Elion Award, Hong presented her work at the annual American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy conference. An invitation to present at the Gene and Cell Therapy conference is a rare privilege. Without the award, Hong would have struggled to scrape together the funds to attend and take advantage of this opportunity. Now, a much larger audience has heard about her important research, and Hong has more connections to help her work grow.
A Brighter Future
In much of the scientific funding world, getting the grant is about what research a scientist has already done or what papers they’ve published. With these awards, BWF gives young scientists a much-needed boost.
“I always knew I wanted to have a big impact on veterinary medicine,” says Gerken. “But the award helped solidify that this is the work I want to do for the rest of my life.”
BWF believes in the power of individuals. As their website says, they commit to fostering the research of the best and brightest scientists. BWF thinks that these researchers are the best chance for improving human health today and into the future.
“Giving someone this support earlier in their career can give them the freedom to do what they think is the next best thing to do,” says McGovern. “It gets them out from under the shadows of others. It helps give them the confidence of having their own thing, and it lets them go where their minds want to go!”
The panel of scientists who help make the selections for the Hitchings and Elion Awards focus not just on scientific discovery, but on research that will make a difference. Each awardee takes what they’ve learned far beyond the bounds of their conferences and labs. Like Elion and Hitchings, their work will have a lasting impact on patients, colleagues, and the pharmaceutical research field for years to come.
Wisdom says the Elion Award is the kind of award she’d want to establish if she ever becomes a famous scientist. “Though famous scientist might be an oxy-moron,” she laughs.
But these bright young researchers don’t need to be famous to change lives. With the help of Triangle Community Foundation and BWF, they’ve already begun.