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The Wellcome Trust

The Sunday Times

Wellcome: Hard sell

George H Hitchings, 1994
Ideas man: George H Hitchings, drug inventor, at Research Triange Park, 1994. Photograph by Brian Deer.

Part II: The moneyspinners

When in 1944 Gertrude Elion joined the laboratories of the New York-based Burroughs Wellcome Company, its executives only reluctantly accepted her, as a favour to their chief biochemist. "Okay, there's a war on," they conceded, perusing the then-26-year-old's details; but she had recently been flitting from job to job and had not got her doctorate. In addition, they declared, she was female and would therefore, sooner or later, quit science for marriage and a family.

Fifty years later, generations of the drug firm's management have swept in and later cleared their desks. And the United States’ operation has moved south to Durham County in North Carolina. But Elion is still firmly on the Burroughs Wellcome payroll, and shows no sign of quitting. Scattered about her office in the British-owned company's headquarters, she displays 18 (honorary) doctorates, a Nobel prize for medicine, and square metres of other distinctions. She has also confounded her long-gone critics by only ever being married to her job.

She did, however, help to start a family - though not of the usual kind. With the man who hired her, Dr George Hitchings, her labours in the laboratory spawned a string of medical products. Without them, the Wellcome drugs empire, started by the late Sir Henry Wellcome, might have gone bust decades ago.

There was 6-mercaptopurine, the first treatment for leukaemia; azathioprine (or Imuran), for use in organ transplants; allopurinol (Zyloric or Zyloprim), for gout; and pyrimethamine (or Daraprim), an anti-malarial. There was trimethoprim (part of Septrin, Septra or Septran), an antibacterial; and acyclovir (Zovirax), the most effective treatment for herpes. These drugs then paved the road to Wellcome's AZT (Retrovir), for people diagnosed with Aids.

The scale of her achievement in half a century of research is hard for nonspecialists to grasp. Both Elion and Hitchings - now aged 89 - who shared the 1988 Nobel prize for medicine with Britain's Sir James Black, often find it best to explain in anecdotes the difference their drugs make to patients.

Recently, Elion (“Trudy” to her friends) got a letter from a mother whose child’s life was saved by a course of acyclovir. Hitchings - who thinks he met Henry Wellcome in the 1930s - looks back to the decade that followed, when mercaptopurine gave remission to a woman with leukemia, who had a child before she relapsed.

But you won't get much help from either inventor in ranking their inventions' importance. "It's like being asked to discriminate amongst your children," Elion says. "It's very difficult to say that mercaptopurine was more important than Imuran, was more important than allopurinol. Or that acyclovir was more important than all of them. Because they came at different times. They were for different uses. And each one in its own time was kind of a revolutionary drug."

Viewed by the accountants and salespeople at Burroughs Wellcome’s parent company in London, however, some look better than others. Together, a quartet of billion-dollar drugs - allopurinol, Septrin, AZT and acyclovir - have turned Wellcome from what was essentially a small-time marketing outfit at the time Elion joined it, into one of today’s pharmaceutical giants. Yielding more than half the company's £2 billion sales revenue last year, they have transformed it into one of the few world-name corporations still controlled from the United Kingdom.

Besides filling the coffers of the parent - trading, confusingly, as the Wellcome Foundation - the same four products have also crammed the kitty for the yet mightier Wellcome Trust. This body - a registered charity set up under the terms of Henry Wellcome’s will - controls the company with 40% stake, and is the richest medical research fund in the world. With assets of more than £10billion, it funds work by thousands of doctors and scientists.

The trust gives out more than £400m a year, with the biggest awards in 1993 to specialists working in neurosciences, molecular and cell biology, physiology, pharmacology, infectious diseases and immunity. Its American equivalent, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, also makes major grants, mainly to support pharmacology research and foreign travel by favoured individuals.

During the 1970s and 1980s (when the charity still held all of the company's share capital), it was mostly profits derived from Elion and Hitchings’s allopurinol and Septrin which flowed through the trust and the fund. Then, unlocked in record-breaking stock market flotations in 1986 and 1992, the growth-spurts of their children AZT and acyclovir became the source of windfall cash.

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Henry Wellcome | Wellcome Trust
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