Sir John Vane

Nobel prize-winning pharmacologist who discovered how aspirin works
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone who takes medicines for cardiovascular disease, pain or chronic inflammation can justifiably feel indebted to John Vane, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1982 for unravelling the mode of action of aspirin and related painkillers and for his work on a group of hormones called prostaglandins.

John Robert Vane, pharmacologist: born Tardebigg, Worcestershire 29 March 1927; Stothert Research Fellow of the Royal Society, Oxford University 1951-53; Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Yale University 1953-55; Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology, Royal College of Surgeons, London University 1955-61, Reader 1961-65, Professor of Experimental Pharmacology 1966-73; FRS 1974; Research and Development Director, Wellcome Foundation, 1973-85; Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (jointly) 1982; Kt 1984; Director, William Harvey Research Institute, St Bartholomew's Hospital 1986-90, Director-General 1990-97, Honorary President 1997-2004; married 1948 Daphne Page (two daughters); died Farnborough, Kent 19 November 2004.

Anyone who takes medicines for cardiovascular disease, pain or chronic inflammation can justifiably feel indebted to John Vane, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1982 for unravelling the mode of action of aspirin and related painkillers and for his work on a group of hormones called prostaglandins.

In a research career lasting over forty years, he also developed a technique for assaying the effects of blood hormones that affected the width of blood vessels, and hence controlled blood pressure. The virtue of the assay was that it was dynamic and instantaneous, so that the progressive effects of these substances could be monitored.

In the 1960s, the class of hormones called prostaglandins had been discovered but their variety of actions was not understood. Vane turned his attention to them, found that they were affected by aspirin, and set about understanding how. He showed that aspirin, paracetamol and other pain-relieving drugs, act by blocking a chemical called prostaglandin synthetase. He also discovered that aspirin knocks out a prostaglandin called thromboxane in blood platelets, and this led to the clinically crucial discovery that a junior aspirin - 75mg - prevents the clotting that causes heart attacks and stroke.

His other major discoveries that have benefited society include the basic science that led to the development of captopril, the first of the Ace inhibitors that lower blood pressure. He also identified and unravelled the mode of action of other substances, including the simple molecule nitric oxide, that acts on the surfaces of blood vessels, causing them to contract or relax, raising or lowering blood pressure.

John Vane was born in Worcestershire in 1927 and educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, before taking a degree in chemistry at Birmingham University. When he graduated, in 1946, the chemistry professor, Maurice Stacey, asked him what he wanted to do and he replied, "anything but chemistry". Stacey had received a letter from a distinguished Oxford pharmacologist, Professor Harold Burn, asking him to recommend a graduate who would go to Oxford to train in pharmacology. He told Vane about it and Vane accepted - and went home to look up pharmacology in his dictionary.

Vane took another BSc, this time in pharmacology, and then a DPhil, at Oxford, spending a year as a pharmacology lecturer at Sheffield University during this time. It was at Oxford that Vane married Daphne Page, whom he had met on a student camping trip, and where their two daughters were born. From Oxford the family went to New Haven, Connecticut where Vane was Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Yale for two years, returning to the UK in 1955 to be Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology, and later Professor, at the Royal College of Surgeons' Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in London.

He spent 18 years there, moving in 1973 to be Director of Research and Development at the Wellcome drug company. As a consultant to Squibb in the 1960s he was father to the company's research programme on angiotensin-converting enzyme, and this led to the drug captopril, the first of the blood-pressure-lowering drugs called Ace inhibitors. He also oversaw the development of other innovative drugs including atracurium, a muscle relaxant, epoprostanol, an anticoagulant, acyclovir, an antiviral drug, and lamictal, for epilepsy.

In 1986 he moved again, to be the founding Director of the William Harvey Research Institute at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He retired in 1997, aged 70, but retained his connections with the institute as honorary president. The institute is now one of the top 20 research establishments in the UK, with a scientific staff of 130.

In 1991 Vane and a colleague set up a new pharmaceutical company, Vanguard Medica Ltd, to develop compounds that the pharmaceutical industry had put to one side for reasons other than toxicity. In 1996 the company was floated on the Stock Exchange with a paper value of £150m.

During the course of a distinguished career in which he published 900 papers, Vane also found time to do extensive pro-bono and charitable work, give prestigious lectures in the UK and abroad, be a visiting professor around the globe, and was joint editor of 20 books.

He served on dozens of committees, including the Council of the Royal Society. He made regular professional visits to Poland and did much to prevent the professional isolation of that country's medical scientists. Despite a prolific workload he still found time for colleagues and friends. He collected numerous honours and awards, in addition to the Nobel Prize that he shared with Sune Bergström and Bengt Samuelsson, of the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.

From 1973 onwards he took regular working holidays on the Caribbean island of Virgin Gorda, where he met up with former colleagues from Yale and other leading scientists from around the world, and where he invited friends and colleagues to form an "invisible college". The house became a Mecca for the world's pharmacologists. Here he loved scuba diving and photography, with a particular interest in the fish and other wildlife.

He was a generous, magnanimous and hospitable person, both in Gorda and at his house in Kent, and did much to encourage new talent. He deplored the forces of anti-science, particularly religious cults, medical quackery and the anti-vivisection movement. The latter harassed him and set fire to his house. He responded courageously, supporting the Biomedical Education Research Trust, which teaches school pupils about the need for medical research, and the Research Defence Society, which fosters understanding of the use of animals in research.

A few years ago he benefited from heart bypass surgery and would use a photo of his heart and open ribcage to illustrate lectures.

Caroline Richmond