How One Woman Changed the Fight Against Kids’ Cancer
Gertrude Elion helped provide new hope for thousands of sick children.

Sixty years ago, parents of children with leukemia were told their children had fewer than five months to live. But a young American female scientist and other determined researchers decided to change that. The work paid off.

In 1964, researchers including Nobel Prize winner Gertrude Elion received a patent for Purinethol, the first treatment for this deadly cancer. Instantly, there was new hope for thousands of the sickest children.

“I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer,” Elion said. “I decided nobody should suffer that much.”

Today, some 85% of children with leukemia live five years or longer according to a report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The overall survival rate is 90%, according to The American Cancer Society (ACS). And ongoing clinical trials show that Purinethol is effective against other types of cancers, pediatric non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, psoriatic arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

The fight is not over. Biopharmaceutical research companies are currently developing 241 medicines targeting leukemia, myeloma and other cancers of the blood. Each year, nearly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with blood cancers including leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, representing about 9 percent of all new cancer diagnoses. ACS also estimates that nearly 55,000 people with these blood cancers died last year.

The work of cancer researchers has been a key weapon in the battle against leukemia and other diseases. “I believe that cancer research is paving the way for bigger and better therapeutics,” says Misty Vest, Principle Research Associate at Agensys. “I enjoy it because I’m helping people. When our medicines go out there, it just takes one to treat many people.”

According to a Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America 2013 report, some of the most promising leukemia, myeloma and lymphoma drugs in clinical trials today include drugs and therapies that are more effective at killing cancer cells while protecting healthy cells, medicines that slow the growth of cancer cells and new delivery mechanisms that don’t require injections.