For some reason, GIBCO’s rejection didn’t faze Shaw. “It went right over my head,” he says. He decided instead to rent a 900-square-foot cement-block garage in Pelham, a town outside of Birmingham, change the company name to Avanti Polar Lipids, because that’s all the company was making, and put out a catalog. “I never wrote a résumé after I graduated,” says Shaw. “I wrote a catalog.”
At that time, Shaw thought he was going to sell lipids as standards for thin-layer chromatography. But changes in lipid research were happening. In 1965, Alec Bangham at the Institute of Animal Physiology in the U.K. had discovered liposomes. By the late 1960s, researchers were very interested in recreating these tiny balls of lipids and learning about their properties. After Shaw’s catalog came out, orders started to come in from all over the U.S. so researchers could make liposomes. “Everyone thought this was the best stuff they had ever seen,” says Shaw. “Orders kept progressing.”
John Weinstein at the National Cancer Institute used Avanti lipids to make liposomes that could deliver drugs to solid tumors. The New York Times ran an article about Weinstein’s work in the spring of 1979, and sales of Avanti lipids rose.
At first, it was just the husband-wife team running Avanti. Rowena Shaw worked out of the home basement, making phone calls, taking orders and shipping out materials. Walter Shaw was in the rented garage, purifying lipids and developing new processes to make synthetic ones. Every morning, Rowena Shaw and a helper thoroughly cleaned the garage. “I would cover all the equipment and clean the rafters,” she says.
In 1979, the Shaws hired a 16-year-old high-school student named Stephen Burgess. Burgess’ father was a grocery store manager with whom Walter Shaw grew friendly because he helped Shaw buy 100 pounds of animal brain, liver and heart for lipid purifications every week (see sidebar). Burgess’ father mentioned he had a son who was interested in science. On the day he turned 16, Burgess started to work at Avanti in the afternoons after school.
At first, Burgess washed the laboratory glassware. But as Shaw taught him lipid chemistry, Burgess moved on to synthesizing and purifying lipids. When Shaw asked the teenager what his scientific interests were, Burgess recalls saying “microbiology.” Shaw passed him a batch of Escherichia coli and told him to extract the lipids. As Burgess got to work, he asked Shaw if all microorganisms smelled as bad. Shaw cheerfully told him there were others that smelled worse. Burgess decided to devote his scientific career to lipids and is now the director of research and development at Avanti.
By the early 1980s, Avanti was steadily supplying research-grade lipids. At that time, representatives from the pharmaceutical company Burroughs-Wellcome approached the Shaws. They wanted to know if Avanti could supply pharmaceutical-grade dipalmitylphosphatidylcholine for a drug they were developing. The drug was to be Exosurf Neonatal.
Exosurf is an artificial lung surfactant used to help premature babies breathe. Before Exosurf, premature babies were placed inside hyperbaric chambers to force oxygen into their lungs. But the high-pressure gas also damaged kidneys and optic nerves, so the babies commonly would go blind and suffer renal failure.