It is with the greatest sadness that we report the recent deaths of two of Andrology’s greatest pioneers, Brian Setchell (11th July) and Guido Verhoeven (19th August). Two very different characters from opposite sides of the world (Brian from Adelaide, Guido from Leuven), who investigated andrology from very different angles, but both outstanding scientists who shaped the course of andrological research and had big influences on the thinking and careers of the two of us. Andrology can ill afford to lose such giants of the field, whose ideas so influenced the course of research of many of us who still draw breath.
Brian, a vet by training, was an ‘old school’ physiologist, a discipline which he explicitly reclaimed , and who single-handedly (or with very few but outstanding partners such as the late Geoff Waites) worked out how the extremely complex testis functioned as a complete/integrated unit; its temperature control (and heat susceptibility), its fluid dynamics (and the foundations for the functional blood-testis barrier), its hormonal regulation, its peculiar vasculature and the variation of these aspects amongst a very broad range of species (domestic, farm, rats monkeys) as well as observations on humans.
His contributions over a 20-year period from around 1970 literally forms the bedrock of what we understand and accept today about how the testis actually works. Other key aspects also benefited from Brian’s insatiable scientific curiosity and creativity, such as how drugs and elevated temperature affected testicular function. His breadth of knowledge and work-rate were phenomenal, and he had a great ability to focus all of this on the next scientific question and design the appropriate experiments, no matter how tricky and demanding these might be; the fact that virtually all of his studies involved sampling from live whole animals will seem almost alien to young investigators today. No task was too great if it would deliver the answers that he sought. An illustration of this was when he wished to translate the works of Enrico Sertoli, the discoverer of Sertoli cells, who was at that time a shadowy figure for most scientists. Brian simply learnt Italian! Like many an Aussie, Brian was forthright in his views, but always had a twinkle in his eye.
Guido was a quietly spoken, scientific gentleman. A man who made his presence felt not by raising his voice, but through his innovative ideas and results and quiet persuasion. Guido was also very much a physiologist in the sense of recognising that what was key was to understand how each new piece of information fitted into the overall picture of testis function and male fertility. However, Guido was also acutely aware that the complexities of testis function, especially its cell-cell interactions, presented a formidable obstacle to gaining new insight. Thus he was a pioneer in the development and optimisation of the culture of testicular somatic cells, making it far easier to study, and manipulate, specific cellular functions, especially of Sertoli cells, but also peritubular myoid cells. In fact, Guido was one of the first to identify that peritubular myoid cells, which were all but ignored by most andrologists, likely played a key role in spermatogenesis via modulation of Sertoli cells.
But, unquestionably, Guido’s biggest contribution was to address the most important, unanswered question in andrology ‘how do androgens control spermatogenesis’. Arguably, this is the most fundamental question in male fertility control, yet a clear, evidence-based answer had eluded researchers, such as ourselves, for decades. It was Guido who masterminded the selective knockout of the androgen receptor in Sertoli cells and showed that this resulted in arrest of spermatogenesis in meiosis – published in PNAS in 2003. But this innovation was far more important than its face-value, because it opened andrologists’ eyes to a whole new way of investigating testis function, by ablating cell-selective androgen action, which has now been achieved for every main cell type in the testis. In building upon this scientific breakthrough Guido collaborated widely, and he was in virtually all respects the ideal collaborator – he always delivered what he said and never promised more than he could deliver.
Two very different guys, two outstanding scientists, two visionary thinkers, two giants in andrology who helped to lay its solid foundations. It is a hackneyed phrase, but they really don’t make them like this anymore. We salute you on behalf of andrologists around the world and hope that, inspired by your work (as we were), your successors will emerge to continue to drive andrology forwards.
Richard Sharpe (Edinburgh) and Bernard Jégou (Rennes)