Sir John Vane: Improbable beginnings  pg. 3

Flower recalls, “As young technicians and graduate students we used to ape around behind the camera, suddenly switching to a more serious demeanor as we moved into its perceived field of view.”

About this time, investigators in London and elsewhere were making significant strides into understanding prostaglandin biology.

Prostaglandins are lipid molecules found in virtually all tissues and organs, which have powerful physiological effects. Often produced in response to trauma, stress or disease, these so-called mediators can affect smooth muscle activity, for example, in blood vessel walls and the uterus, and they play a role in a host of other metabolic processes.

Vane with longtime colleague Professor Gustav Born at The Royal Society in London. Like Vane, Born is a Fellow of The Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science.
Scientists at the time knew that prostaglandins were useful in obstetrics for both inducing and terminating pregnancies, and that the compounds could inhibit ulcer formation in the stomach and cause fever and inflammation in animals. Some of the most interesting prostaglandins were notoriously difficult to study, however, because they are potent for only a few seconds before they are rendered inactive and excreted. Even after four decades of research, the specifics of prostaglandin activity had yet to be worked out.

By the mid-1960s, some of those questions were being answered. Sune Bergstrom of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm had purified the first prostaglandins and determined their structure, and his student Bengt Samuelsson was examining the various components within this newly discovered biological system.

One weekend in 1971, Vane had a remarkable idea. He knew that aspirin, by then the world’s most commonly prescribed drug, reduced pain and relieved fever and inflammation—although no one understood exactly how. Vane hypothesized that aspirin might work by inhibiting the generation of prostaglandins—and he realized he could easily test his theory by using his cascade superfusion assay.

“It was a brilliant experiment. It immediately gave us a conceptual framework by which to evaluate the role of prostaglandins in inflammation,” says John Oates, M.D., an internationally known prostaglandin researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We could use his assay as a tool for identifying prostaglandin activity in any number of processes,” Oates says. “It linked prostaglandins to fever and analgesia.”

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