George H. Hitchings

Glaxo Wellcome Inc.

April 18, 1905 - February 27, 1998

Scientific Discipline: Medical Physiology and Metabolism
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1977)

Biochemist George H. Hitchings developed a groundbreaking new approach to drug development that would not only change the course of drug therapy research forever, but also led to the discovery of agents that could successfully treat major human diseases.  Drug development was originally based on chemical modification of natural products; however, Hitchings and his close colleague of over forty years, Gertrude Elion, introduced a more practical approach that focused on the understanding of basic biochemical and physiological processes.  They began their research by studying how normal cells, cancer cells, bacteria, parasites, and viruses metabolized purines and pyrimidines (components of nucleic acids involved in controlling heredity and cellular functions).  They found that it was possible to combat diseases by using substitutes for the nucleic acids in DNA that would disable invading microbial or cancerous cells while sparing the host patient.  This work led Hitchings and Elion to their development of the two first successful chemotherapy drugs for the treatment of children with leukemia: 6-mercaptopurine and thioguanine.  The duo’s new method of drug development resulted in their discoveries of successful treatments for malaria, leukemia, gout, immunosuppressive complications of organ transplantation, and intractable bacterial infections.  The new process invented by Hitchings influenced the entire medical community, and it led to the creation of acyclovir (treated herpes infections) and AZT (the only drug approved for AIDS treatment). 

Hitchings earned his B.S. (1927) and M.S. (1928) degrees in chemistry from the University of Washington and his Ph.D. (1933) in biochemistry from Harvard University.  After teaching and researching at both universities, he accepted a position as a biochemist at Burroughs Wellcome Co. in 1942 (he would meet Elion two years later).  After only six years, Hitchings became the chief biochemist at the drug company.  Over the next forty years, he would continue to rise through the ranks of the company until he became the Vice President in Charge of Research in 1967, which he would remain until his retirement in 1977.  From 1968 to 1980, he was also a professor of pharmacology at Brown University.  He was the founder and director of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and he served as its president from 1971 to 1990.  Hitchings was affiliated with practically every organization associated with chemistry, biochemistry, or pharmacology.  Although he was the recipient of an impressive list of scientific commendations, Hitchings received his most prestigious award in 1988: the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.      

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