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BMJ. 2007 September 8; 335(7618): 518.
PMCID: PMC1971189

Edward Arthur Boyse

Immunologist who realised that cord blood stem cells could be used for lifesaving transplants and discovered the subtypes of T cells

Around the globe at least a 100 000 children born with fatal inherited blood diseases have had their lives saved by a transplant of placental blood stem cells. They owe this to Ted Boyse, who in 1989 realised that every placenta thrown in the incinerator is rich in blood stem cells that might be useful for transplantation. He then painstakingly extracted and froze, for differing lengths of time, stem cells from over 100 placentas. He found that the cells survived long periods of freezing. As it was well known that cancer chemotherapy was toxic to the haematopoietic cells of bone marrow, he postulated that children with such diseases could have their own stem cells destroyed and replaced with cord blood stem cells. With French and American collaborators, he participated in the first such transplant, in France. The patient, a child with Fanconi's anaemia, was cured.

According to Sir Walter Bodmer, he was “one of the early pioneers of immunogenetics in the mouse. He subsequently made major contributions to understanding T lymphocyte subsets and the use of cord blood as a source of bone marrow derived stem cells. He was an original and stimulating thinker.”

Earlier, it was Boyse who discovered that not all T lymphocytes are the same, identifying the subsets now called CD4 and CD8 and recognising their killer and helper functions.

His third major achievement was to show—in mice, and later in humans—that an individual's odour, including the smell of their urine, is determined by the genes of the major histocompatibility complex. Identical twins smell the same, as police dog handlers know. Lewis Thomas, Boyse's chief at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, postulated that sniffer dogs could be used to recognise whether a potential donor and patient were sufficiently similar in the HLA groups for a transplant to be feasible. Boyse did some experimental work on this, but the results were inconclusive and were therefore not published. He showed that mice can tell the difference in scent between relatives and strangers, preferring to mate with partners that are immunogenetically (and odorifically) unrelated. He postulated that humans have a similar instinct. This work has been less widely accepted.

Boyse was born in Worthing, the son of a church organist who was a fellow of the Royal College of Organists. In adult life he could not recall the name of his private junior school, run by two maiden ladies who kept a pair of crossed assegais [hunting spears of the Bantu tribe] over the fireplace. He left Worthing Grammar School in 1941, aged 17, to join up. He qualified as a flying instructor in the Royal Air Force, and was commended in 1943.

He was demobbed in 1946, finished his matriculation, and entered St Bartholomew's Medical School, qualifying in 1952. After a five year series of hospital jobs, during which he got his MD, he moved in 1957 to a three year research appointment at Guy's with Peter Gorer, who had discovered the major histocompatibility complex H2, in mice.

In 1960 he joined the brain drain to New York University Medical School. Seven years later he moved to the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where, often working with Lewis Thomas, he identified and conducted seminal work on the immunogenetics of the lymphocyte surface markers CD4 and CD8, which he originally named the Ly system.

He spent 22 years at Sloan-Kettering, and for 20 of these he was also biology professor at Cornell Medical School, which was across the road.

His final career move was to Arizona University, as distinguished professor of microbiology and immunology. He officially retired in 1994 as emeritus professor but continued working. His last paper, in 2002, was on the way that mice with mammary tumours had a specific change of body odour.

Ted Boyse's work on the types and functions of T cells underpins modern immunology. He was the first person to be a fellow of the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His other awards included the US Cancer Research Institute award in tumour immunology (1975) and the Rockefeller and Harvard Universities' Isaac Adler Award (1976). He published over 400 scientific papers.

Ted Boyse had a sense of fun, was passionate about his work, and was a perfectionist in all he did. He made and restored furniture to professional standards. He kept fit by running, digging his garden, and planting trees.

His health deteriorated in his last years. He leaves his wife and colleague, Judith Bard, and two children; one son predeceased him.

Professor Edward Arthur Boyse FRS, member Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, New York, 1967-89; professor of biology Cornell University, 1969-89; distinguished professor Arizona University, 1989-94, then emeritus professor (b 11 August 1923, q St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, 1952; MD), died from pneumonia on 14 July 2007.


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