The astounding medical breakthroughs made by women

The leaps made in modern medicine over the last 100 years have been astounding; improvements in hygiene and the development of new medicines and vaccinations have contributed to increased life expectancies and healthier populations around the world. What some people don’t know, however, is that many of these incredible breakthroughs have been made by women scientists. DiscovHER shares some of the most important discoveries.

1. Discovery of the HIV virus

The HIV virus, responsible for AIDS, was discovered by French retrovirologist Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in 1983 alongside her mentor Dr. Luc Montagnier. This discovery was vital in helping researchers develop diagnostic tests and eventually treatments that now allow AIDS sufferers to manage their condition. The pair were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for their breakthrough. Today, Dr. Barré-Sinoussi is retired, but continues to advocate for a stronger dialogue and cooperation between AIDS researchers in order to finally eradicate this disease.

2. Development of drugs for AIDS, herpes, gout, and other diseases

Dr. Gertrude Belle Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist who, alongside her lifelong research partner Dr. George Hitchings, developed drug therapies for a vast array of diseases, from malaria and herpes to AIDs and leukemia. Born in 1918, Dr. Elion faced many closed doors as a woman scientist, and was permanently placed in lower-ranked jobs than her partner Dr. Hitchings. However, the recognition she deserved came in the form of a Nobel Prize in 1988 and a National Medal of Science in 1991.

3. Discovery of artemisinin, the anti-malaria drug

Chinese scientist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015 for the development of the artemisinin, an effective anti-malarial drug that has saved countless lives around the world and is now part of the standard set of therapies for treating this disease. The World Health Organization classes this drug as an essential medicine to be distributed free or at low cost. What’s particularly interesting is that Dr. Tu developed this therapy using principles from traditional Chinese medicine: it is the first time the Nobel Committee has rewarded this kind of research. Dr. Tu is also the first female Chinese Nobel laureate in any field.

4. Development of CRISPR-Cas9

Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna developed CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, a revolutionary technology in genome editing which works like a pair of scissors, allowing scientists to precisely cut bits of genetic code. The potential applications of the technology are enormous, and could be used to eradicate a wide range of diseases. In the short term, the technology can be used in single-gene disorders but in the long term could target diseases where multiple genes are involved. Since its discovery, the tool has been rapidly adopted by many laboratories around the world.

5. Discovery of the gene responsible for Huntingdon’s disease

Dr. Nancy Wexler has devoted her life to the eradication of Huntington’s disease, an inherited degenerative disease that kills nerve cells in the brain. In 1979, she began a 20-year study in Venezuela to gather information from the world’s largest family of Huntingdon’s sufferers, numbering almost 18,000 people over 10 generations. This led her to a breakthrough discovery, where she was able to pinpoint the precise location of the gene responsible for the disease. The discovery of this gene is a vital and necessary step in providing therapies for Huntington’s disease, though a cure remains to be discovered. Dr. Wexler’s research has also led to the discovery of genes responsible for other diseases, such as familial Alzheimer's disease, kidney cancer and dwarfism.

Can you name any other medical breakthroughs made by women? (There are lots). Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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