Farewell to Balz Frei

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Next week, a new school year will start here at Oregon State University. And with it, for the first time since 1997, the Linus Pauling Institute will enter into a fresh academic calendar without the leadership of its now emeritus director, OSU Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Dr. Balz Frei.  Last Spring, word of Frei’s retirement from LPI made its way into local headlines, and in this interview he confided that, in addition to relinquishing his administrative responsibilities, he will be closing down his research laboratory as well.

A native of Winterthur, Switzerland, Frei moved permanently to the United States in 1986, when he accepted a lengthy post-doctoral appointment in Dr. Bruce Ames’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Frei later moved on to a position in the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, and after four years at Harvard, he relocated to the Boston University School of Medicine. A widely respected scientist, Frei’s research has focused on the mechanisms causing chronic human disease, in particular atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, and the role that micronutrients, phytochemicals, and dietary supplements might play in ameliorating these diseases.

In 1997, Frei became the first and, until now, only director of the Oregon State University incarnation of the Linus Pauling Institute.  Founded in 1973 as the Institute for Orthomolecular Medicine, and renamed the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine a year later, the Institute struggled for much of its history in California, hamstrung in part by the intense controversy that it’s founder and namesake generated through his bold proclamations about vitamin C.

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Moving to OSU in 1996 helped to wipe the Institute’s slate clean, and the major progress that the Institute has enjoyed in the twenty years that have followed is a direct outcome of Frei’s vision, skill, and endeavor. Following Linus Pauling’s death in 1994, the Institute, crippled by funding problems and lacking a clear strategic vision, was nearly shuttered. Today, Frei leaves behind a thriving research enterprise that includes twelve principal investigators and a $10.2 million endowment.

We conducted a lengthy oral history interview with Frei in January 2014 and have included a few excerpts after the break.  The entire interview is worth a read as it details the life and work of a man who has made a true difference at our institution and within the fields of disease prevention and the quest for optimal health.

On his first encounter with LPISM in 1986

I think financially they were kind of struggling a little bit. But, you know, that is not unusual for [laughs] research institutes. It didn’t have a lot of NIH funding, and part of it was because Linus Pauling had become so controversial and he was himself not successful in getting any NIH grants anymore. So they were struggling financially a bit, but they had also some big donors that kind of kept them going. The building was pretty old. I remember kind of not being very impressed by that. I ended up, obviously, taking a different job, and I felt that taking a job at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine as an assistant professor—they didn’t have an official affiliation with a university—would not be a good move for me at that time in my career. So I wanted to really go to an established university, you know, kind of get the best job I could. And I had a number of offers, and so I didn’t go to the Linus Pauling Institute. I took another offer.

On his LPI interview presentation in 1997

When I was giving my seminar—you know, back then we had the slide projectors, not the LCD projectors we have today. So I had all my slides there in the carousel. And the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, who was the chair also of the search committee—he was in the back of the room and operating the slide projector. And a slide got stuck very early in my talk—I think it was maybe the third or fourth slide—because it was too thick. You know, that used to happen every now and then. So the slide got stuck, and he took the whole carousel out, and was trying to get the slide out of the carousel, and he couldn’t do that. So he turned the whole carousel upside down, and all the slides came out. They were all on the floor! [Laughs] And of course he had no idea how to put them back in what sequence; I hadn’t numbered them or anything. [Laughs] And so I basically had to give the talk without slides. And at some point he got them back on, and they were kind of scrambled, and not in the right sequence, and upside down, and what have you. [Laughs]

On attracting strong principal investigators early on in his tenure at LPI

What was very critical early on was to have a very well-defined mission of what we want to do with the Institute. I know some people think, “yeah, a mission statement is kind of useless,” but it turned out to be really a key thing, because it allowed us to build the Institute in a very focused manner. We would only hire people who were interested in contributing to the mission of the Institute, which was to understand the role of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, and also phytochemicals, which are chemicals in plants—fruits and vegetables in particular. So dietary components, and how they can be used in disease prevention and health promotion. And not only understanding the effects, but the underlying mechanisms, so we really do high-quality nutrition research, mechanistic research, that would explain how these micronutrients and how these dietary components can inhibit disease initiation or progression at the molecular and cellular level. So really good quality research, and research that could have great impact, because disease prevention is really the way to go, I think, in general, for medicine in this century, and the twentieth century, too, to really get a handle on healthcare costs, and prevent disease in the first place, rather than treat it.

So yeah, that gave us a great start with these three faculty I was able to recruit. And then over the years, we added one faculty at a time. A few of them we basically recruited from within OSU, and most of them actually we brought in through searches. You know, we have been really successful, I think, in adding very high quality scientists to the Institute over the years. My approach was always, if you want to have a great Institute, you had to hire great faculty. The Institute can only be successful if the individual faculty are successful, and I think we have been very successful at bringing in successful faculty, and that was one of the key elements of building up the Institute.

On living longer and feeling better

Lifestyle, smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising. Those are the biggest ones. I think, you know, if there is a magic bullet—there is none—but if there is something that comes close to a magic bullet of how you can stay healthy, it’s to exercise. Be physically active. You don’t have to go running in the gym, or whatever. If you just have an active lifestyle, that can go a long way. Don’t be sedentary. Don’t sit in chairs for eight hours a day. Be just active. That can do a lot of good for your health. If you go running, or do some strenuous exercise, that’s okay, too, that’s good too. That to me is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. And related to that, obviously, maintain a healthy weight. So, don’t become overweight, or obese.

And then the third pillar is the dietary supplements. To me, an absolute no-brainer, to take a multi-vitamin, multi-mineral every day, because we know—if people would eat the perfect diet in this country, yeah, they would probably cover most, but not all, of their vitamin and mineral needs. You know, the government, the Institute of Medicine, comes out with certain recommendations: you should get so much of Vitamin C, and so much of Vitamin B6, and so much of calcium. But we don’t meet these recommendations; almost nobody in this country does. Even if you would eat the very healthy diet, it would still be hard to meet all of the recommendations for all the vitamins and minerals. But the fact is that 95 percent in this country are not eating what we should. With the dietary guidelines, 95 percent of the United States is not following those.

So we have a lot of nutritional gaps, so take a multi-vitamin, multi-mineral to fill those gaps, and pay attention to some other vitamins. Like, Vitamin D is very important in immune function, and many other biological functions. I take an extra Vitamin D supplement. You need to pay attention to your calcium, to your magnesium, fish oils are important, so if you don’t get enough of those from your diet, take a supplement. So there are a number of supplements that are very important. But again, it’s just to fill gaps in your diet, first and foremost. So they are part of a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. But again, they are just icing on the cake. They are not the bread and the butter—or the fruits and the vegetables [laughs]—of a healthy lifestyle.

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