Sir John Vane, FRS

After graduating in chemistry from the University of Birmingham, John Vane went on to train in pharmacology with J H Burn in Oxford in 1946. A D.Phil., followed in 1953 after which he spent two years in the USA in Department of Pharmacology at Yale.

John returned to the UK in 1955 and W D M Paton appointed him senior lecturer in his department of pharmacology at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in London. John gained a personal chair in 1966 and, together with GVR Born, created an extraordinarily productive pharmacology department which attracted talented scientists from around the world.

Here, John perfected his signature ‘blood bathed organ cascade’, a technique whereby blood or saline solution was passed over a series of strips of smooth muscles chosen for their exquisite sensitivity to the substances under investigation. This technique enabled him to measure, with astonishing rapidity and specificity, the levels of one or more blood hormones instantaneously.

Using this technique he observed that the pulmonary circulation was a major site for the conversion of angiotensin I to angiotensin II. He speculated that this was caused by the same enzyme that degraded bradykinin and deduced that a peptide factor which inhibited bradykinin destruction, might also block angiotensin I conversion and that this could prove a useful therapy for hypertension. The ultimate outcome of this idea was the development of the ACE inhibitors, which revolutionised the treatment of hypertension.

1971 bought another breakthrough. John was interested in prostaglandins and how they were released from lungs and other tissues. Over a weekend he conceived the notion that aspirin (and perhaps all the NSAIDs which shared its pharmacology) worked by inhibiting the generation of these mediators. Experimental proof was soon obtained and this concept profoundly influenced the future development of the field leading to the development of the ‘low dose’ aspirin concept in the cardiovascular arena and providing the intellectual underpinning for the development (in the 1990s) of the COX-2 inhibitors.

In 1973 John moved to the Wellcome Foundation as R&D Director and established his own personal research group. In 1976, working with his colleagues, he discovered prostaglandin ‘X’ which, through a very productive collaboration with Upjohn was identified, named prostacyclin (PGI2), and later approved for the treatment of pulmonary hypertension and platelet related indications. Under John’s management, Wellcome produced several other important drugs including Zovirax, Tracrium and Lamictal.

John’s contributions to his discipline were now widely recognised. In 1974 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1977 won the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. In 1982 he shared, with B Samuelsson and S Bergström, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In 1984 he was knighted in the New Years Honours list for services to pharmaceutical science and over fifty other honorary degrees and fellowships followed over the years.

John left the Wellcome Foundation in 1986. He accepted an offer of space from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, and with a grant from Glaxo Group Research, started a further group. He was joined by several former colleagues and The William Harvey Research Institute arose from this alliance. Major funding from Ono Pharmaceuticals in Japan enabled the institute to expand and it became a veritable pharmacological powerhouse specialising in research into inflammation and cardiovascular disease. John retired as full-time director of the institute in 1995 but remained Honorary Chairman of the charitable William Harvey Research Foundation.

John died peacefully of pneumonia in the Princess Royal Hospital in Farnborough, Kent, UK on Friday 19th November 2004, aged 77.

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