John R. Vane Biography (1927-)


John Robert Vane was born March 29, 1927, in Tardebigge, Worcester. His parents' Christmas gift of a chemistry set sparked Vane's interest in science whenhe was twelve, and his home became the site of numerous experiments. However, upon entering the University of Birmingham in 1944, he found that the workgiven him was not as challenging as he anticipated. At the advice of a professor, he decided to go to Oxford University to study pharmacology after receiving his B.S. in chemistry from Birmingham in 1946. Vane became a fellow on Oxford's Therapeutic Research Council for the next two years. He obtained a B.S. in pharmacology from Oxford in 1949, and earned his doctorate in 1953. After leaving Oxford, Vane came to America to teach pharmacology at Yale University. He returned to England in 1955 as a senior lecturer in pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons, at its Institute of Basic Medical Sciences.

Vane became interested in prostaglandins in the late 1950s. Discovered in the1930s, they were originally thought to be secreted by the prostate gland, which is how they got their name. Prostaglandins are natural compounds, developed from fatty acids, which control many bodily functions. Different prostaglandins regulate blood pressure and coagulation, allergic reactions to substances, the rate of metabolism, glandular secretions, and contractions in the uterus.

For many years after the discovery of prostaglandins, scientists were unawareof how they were produced and how they functioned. In the early 1960s Vane expanded upon the procedure known as biological assay (bioassay), by which thestrength of a substance is measured by comparing its effects on an organismwith those of a standard preparation. Vane developed the dynamic bioassay, which allows scientists to measure more than one substance in blood or body fluids. This method enabled Vane and his colleagues at the Royal College to prove that prostaglandins are produced by many tissues and organs in the body. Further research led the scientists to discover that, unlike hormones, certainprostaglandins are effective only in the areas where they were formed.

In 1966 Vane advanced to professor of experimental pharmacology at the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences and continued his studies. An experiment he conducted in 1969 resulted in the discovery of the methods by which aspirin alleviates pain and reduces inflammation. Using the lung tissue of guinea pigs,Vane found that aspirin inhibited the production of a certain prostaglandin that causes inflammation. He published the results in a June, 1971, issue of Nature New Biology, a science magazine.

In 1973 Vane resigned his post at the Institute to enter the business world as director of research and development at the Wellcome Foundation, a pharmaceutical company. Following up on research by the Swedish chemist Bengt Samuelsson (who found that a type of prostaglandin was responsible for allowing blood to clot), Vane discovered the existence of a prostaglandin with the opposite quality, which inhibits clot formation. With the assistance of the Upjohn Chemical Corporation, Vane isolated the secretion, which he named prostacyclin. This discovery proved to be of great assistance in dissolving clots blocking the blood supply in stroke and heart attack victims and is also useful forkeeping blood from clotting during surgery. Scientists have discovered even more uses for prostaglandins, including the treatment of ulcers, alleviating pain from menstruation and gallstones, and stimulating contractions for childbirth.

Vane, along with Samuelsson and Swedish chemist Sune Bergström, was given the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1977 for his work on prostaglandins. Five years later, in 1982, the Nobel Committee gave the trio theNobel Prize for medicine or physiology. After receiving the award, Vane predicted that future research on prostaglandins would create major breakthroughsin the areas of medicine. "In the next 20 years we should see a substantial attack on the disease process," Time quoted him as saying. "We will be able to find new drugs that have effects on cardiovascular disease, on asthma, on heart attack," and even health problems associated with old age, the magazine reported.

During the 1980s Vane embarked on a crusade for greater research on new drugsto fight both new diseases (such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, known as AIDS) and drug-resistant strains of old diseases, such as malaria. In articles for scientific and medical journals, he stressed the need for greater international cooperation in the search for a cure or vaccine for AIDSand advocated the creation of an Institute for Tropical Diseases to researchnew drugs to battle disease in the tropics.

Recent Updates

November 19, 2004: Vane died on November 19, 2004, in Fanborough, England. Source: New York Times,, November 23, 2004.November 19, 2004: Vane died on November 19, 2004, in Farnborough, England. Source: New York Times,, November 23, 2004.

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