How Walter and Rowena Shaw grew Avanti Polar Lipids into the company it is today
Avanti Polar Lipids probably would not exist if it hadn’t been for a brother and sister born of incest. The siblings suffered from a genetic disease. A researcher got involved in understanding some of the molecular details of the disease. That researcher was Walter Shaw.
As a series of events unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, his project spun off into what would become one of the most recognized suppliers of lipid products. Today, Avanti Polar Lipids, which 72-year-old Shaw owns and runs with his wife, Rowena, has 110 employees in Alabaster, Ala.
In 1967, when he was a laboratory director at the Medical College of Virginia, tubes of blood from the brother-sister pair landed in Walter Shaw’s hands. The siblings had type I hyperlipidemia, which meant they couldn’t metabolize fats properly. The brother and sister “would periodically come to the emergency room to be treated for pancreatitis caused by eating a fatty meal,” says Shaw. Shaw’s boss, clinician-researcher William Harlan, had the siblings’ permission to take blood samples for research purposes during their hospital visits.
Harlan already had established that the siblings were missing the adipose tissue lipase commonly called lipoprotein lipase. They had problems with processing neutral triacylglycerols. But the patients had phospholipase activity. What enzyme produced this phospholipase activity? Shaw was tasked with finding that out.
|Aerial view of Avanti’s campus. Image courtesy of Walter Shaw.
Shaw and others in Harlan’s group developed an assay to track the phospholipase activity. The mysterious enzyme was very slow and required lots of substrate egg phosphatidylcholine. A single incubation consumed 10 grams of the substrate. Shaw and Peter Jezyk, now a veterinarian in Arizona, were in charge of purifying kilos of phosphatidylcholine from eggs. The researchers soon switched to a radioactive substrate that could be used in smaller amounts, but by then Shaw and Jezyk knew how to purify buckets of egg phosphatidylcholine and happened to have some left over.
When not cracking eggs with Jezyk, Shaw had another project to worry about. He and Harlan were trying to figure out why the red blood cells of severely burned patients looked like spiky balls instead of the usual biconcave disks. It was Shaw’s responsibility to collect the weepage from the victims’ third-degree burns, which covered more than one-third of their bodies. To this day, Shaw says he has horrible flashbacks to the weepage collections.
In trying to understand why the red blood cells of burn victims turned spiky, Shaw needed to learn a purification technique. To learn the method, he had to go to The Ohio State University, where he had earned his master’s degree, to visit a researcher who could teach it to him. While he was in Cleveland, Shaw decided to drop by a company called Grand Island Biological Company. The company is better known today as GIBCO and is now part of Invitrogen. On the Friday he walked into the company’s office, its leaders were grappling with a problem. Their lipid supplier in India had had a facility fire and was unable to deliver materials. When Shaw mentioned he had several kilos of egg phosphatidylcholine handy, “They bought it on the spot,” he says.