GSK to sell iconic Elion-Hitchings building

On the heels of last week's announcement that GlaxoSmithKline was selling off 19 consumer products comes news today by Laura Oleniacz from the Durham Herald-Sun that the drugmaker is liquidating some of its facilities on its Research Triangle Park campus.

The GSK Elion-Hitchings Building, formerly Burroughs-Wellcome headquarters, Research Triangle Park, NC. Photo: Joseph Molitor, Paul Rudolph Foundation.

One of these buildings is the futuristic structure built in 1972 for then Burroughs-Wellcome as designed by famed architect, Paul Rudolph. Now known as the Elion-Hitchings building in honor of the Nobel prize-winning chemists, the facility is one of the most recognizable landmarks in pharmaceutical history. Click here for a fantastic series of copywritten photos from architect Kelvin Dickinson of The Paul Rudolph Foundation. You may recognize the building from the movie, Brainstorm, with Christopher Walken and the late Natalie Wood. (Her final film, the movie was released almost two years after her Wood's death.) Elion and Hitchings were awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, not Chemistry, for their synthesis of antimetabolite drugs - analogs of nucleic acid bases that selectively killed tumor cells but became treatments for gout (allopurinol), herpesviruses (acyclovir), and HIV/AIDS (AZT; zidovudine). Of interest to ACS readers and others interested in pharmaceutical history, the Elion-Hitchings Building is located almost directly across the Durham Freeway (NC-147) from the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark at Research Triangle Institute, now RTI International. That landmark honors the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by the late Monroe Wall and still-spry Mansukh Wani. One might ask why the Elion-Hitchings Building was never nominated for an ACS landmark. My guess is that many of the antimetabolite compounds synthesized by Elion and Hitchings were made before Burroughs-Wellcome's US facilities moved from New York to North Carolina's Research Triangle Park in 1970. After Hitchings retired in 1967, Elion stayed on almost until her death in 1999, still working with young researchers both at BW and at nearby Duke University. Of note, Elion's group did synthesize acyclovir at the RTP facility. I love old buildings, even if old in this case is the early 1970s. So, what could be done with this building? I have an idea: hipster scientist condominiums. Research Triangle Park was officially chartered in 1959 long before the idea of mixed-use developments - gasoline was only about 16 cents per gallon and the whole idea of recruiting companies from the North to North Carolina was that workers could have inexpensive housing with lots of land out in the surrounding rural areas. As a result, the immediate RTP area is known for its relative lack of housing and services such as restaurants, coffeeshops, and brewpubs (i.e., places that scientists could gather for creative discussion). Most companies have their own services, of course - brewpubs excluded - but getting off-site is essential to free-flowing discussions. There's a great bike path that runs from GSK throughout RTP and I'm sure that the Elion-Hitchings Building would appeal to young green souls who come here for jobs in the sciences, computers, and engineering. Condominiums. I'm only half-joking.   Update 29 June 2012: The News & Observer has announced that United Therapeutics has purchased the Elion-Hitchings Building together with two others on the GSK campus.

Author: David Kroll

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1 Comment

  1. That really is a wonderful idea.