Sir John Vane: Improbable beginnings  pg. 2

As a doctoral student at Oxford in the 1950s, Vane learned to use bioassays, which detect and measure the natural sensitivity of pieces of tissue to hormones and other biologically active compounds. At that time, the instruments for bioassay were highly complicated and answers to research questions came only after weeks of laborious tests.

Vane, who in those early days was studying the biological activity of snake venom, quickly grew impatient with the cumbersome biomedical technology necessary for his research. He was determined to find a way to reach answers more quickly, in particular, to find an easier method for examining unstable compounds.

Sir John Vane in his office at the Wellcome Research Laboratories, early 1980s.
In 1956, after moving into a junior faculty position in Experimental Pharmacology at the University of London’s Royal College of Surgeons, he developed a groundbreaking technique, the “cascade superfusion bioassay,” which allowed him to investigate the release of hormones and other substances in the bloodstream in “real time.”

Says Needleman, currently associate dean for special research projects at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis: “Vane’s methodology was a perfection of existing biological bioassay methods and was so spectacular that it allowed us to ask biological questions with some specificity and get instant gratification. It required the interplay of using different responding tissues that could recognize different body chemicals, and play them off against known bioactive compounds.”

“At the time, this was a revolutionary technique of enormous sensitivity and versatility,” explains Rod Flower, Ph.D., a former protégé and longtime colleague of Vane’s, and professor of biochemical pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute in London. “John had used this idea to measure the release and disappearance of hormones in the circulation and also to measure the release of substances from other perfused organs, such as the perfused lung.”

From the moment of its invention, Vane thoroughly enjoyed the quick reward his bioassay provided. In fact, many times his lab members could find out the results of their endeavors in a single day. Flower recalls that at one point Vane installed a closed circuit television camera in the lab with the lens aimed at the chart recorder, and he would watch the monitor from his office. As the pen moved over the chart and the tissue began to contract, Vane would phone from his command center and reel off instructions to the people working in the lab—such as the next best dose try on that tissue sample.

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