Feb. 11 was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. While challenged to thrive in the sector, women’s developments and discoveries in science have been groundbreaking. The most current example is the participation of women in the research for two of the leading COVID-19 vaccines.
MBN brings some examples of remarkable women who have contributed to healthcare developments.
Alice Ball (1812-1916)
An Afro-American scientist, Ball developed the only effective leprosy treatment prior to the creation of antibiotics in 1940. At age 23, she managed to extract the active ingredients of chaulmoogra oil, chaulmogric acid and hydnocarpic acid. With them, Ball created the first water-soluble and therefore easily injectable remedy to relieve and treat leprosy patients.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
She was an Italian neurologist whose work led to the discovery of the chemical tools used by the body to direct cell growth, build nerve networks and ensure their survival. Her work also allowed to understand how cell growth processes can go wrong and cause diseases like dementia or cancer. Due to her findings on molecules that stimulate cell growth, in particular of neurons, Levi-Montalcini was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Born Jewish, she fled Nazism in Europe to live in the US until she passed away.
Anne Szarewski (1959-2013)
She was one of the first people to develop an understanding of the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the disease it causes. She also determined why screening for HPV was as important as the routine smear test. Szarewski eventually became the principal investigator on the GSK team that developed the bivalent HPV vaccine.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947)
She is responsible for the identification of a rotavirus (later called HIV), which later develops into AIDS. Through her research published in 1983, she determined transmission of the virus could be through blood, sexual intercourse or vertical route, meaning mother-enfant contagion. For her contributions to discovering and fighting this disease, Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2008.
Sarah Gilbert (1962)
A British vaccinologist working as a Professor at the University of Oxford. Gilbert has led and co-developed the COVID-19 vaccine research with the Oxford Vaccine Group. As an experienced vaccinologist, prior to her work on COVID-19, she led the development and testing of the universal flu vaccine. Her research considers the development and preclinical testing of viral vaccines, which embed a pathogenic protein inside a safe virus. These viral vaccinations induce a T-cell response, which can be used against viral diseases, malaria and cancer. In 2014, she led the first trial on an Ebola vaccine.
Özlem Türeci (1967)
She is the leading scientist in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine project against COVID-19. Türeci is the Chief Medical Officer of the company she founded alongside her husband in 2018, BioNTech. Under her leadership, BioNTech’s development became the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved globally. Of Turkish ascendance, she is a German citizen.