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.

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An Interview with Balz Frei, Director of the Linus Pauling Institute

Balz Frei

Balz Frei

Oregon State University is turning 150 years old in 2018, and already several projects are being developed to mark the occasion.  One of them is a major oral history initiative that is capturing the stories of a wide array of alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and friends of OSU.

Several months ago, the project conducted an interview with Dr. Balz Frei, who has led OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute since 1997.  A Swiss native, Frei worked under Bruce Ames at UC-Berkeley before moving on to Harvard, the Boston University School of Medicine and, ultimately, Oregon State.

Frei’s research has always focused on the processes fundamental to human health. During his time in Berkeley, Frei became interested in vitamin C and met Linus Pauling. His later work has focused on oxidative stress and the role that it plays in atherosclerosis. He has also investigated arterial function and potential dietary compounds – including vitamin C – that might help prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

Under Frei’s leadership, the Linus Pauling Institute has stabilized its funding base, hired several principal investigators and made substantial contributions to the published literature on subjects relating to nutrition and optimal human health.

In 2011 the Institute celebrated a major milestone with the completion of the Linus Pauling Science Center. This 105,000 square foot facility, built for $62.5 million, is the largest academic facility project in OSU history. Now housed in this new space, LPI continues to conduct research on cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, healthy aging, and cancer chemoprotection, and engages in public outreach through its Micronutrient Information Center and Healthy Youth Program.

Excerpts from Frei’s oral history interview, including his memories of meeting Pauling, his sense of Pauling’s vitamin C work, and his vision for the future of LPI, are included below the cut.

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LPI Looks to the Future

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[A history of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, Part 8 of 8]

The opening of this current decade promises to be even better for the Linus Pauling Institute than was the last. The decade got off to a great start when, in 2011, Oregon State University opened the Linus Pauling Science Center to house LPI, parts of the department of chemistry, and other lab and teaching spaces.

For the Institute, the historical importance of the completion of the Linus Pauling Science Center is difficult to overstate. The building, which is the largest academic facility on the OSU campus, was a serious undertaking – it cost $62.5 million to build the four-story, 105,000 square-foot research center. The funding was acquired through donations from the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation ($20 million), the Al and Pat Reser family ($10.65 million), 2,600 private individuals (~$600,000), and a matching bond ($31.25 million) from the State of Oregon.  The facility is one of the cornerstone achievements of The Campaign for OSU, a capital campaign which seeks to raise $1 billion in funds by June 2014.

Constructing its own building on the OSU campus was a goal for LPI from the minute the Institute moved to Corvallis. Indeed, Linus Pauling Jr. remembers sketching potential plans on napkins while at meetings with OSU staff during the moving process and Institute Director Balz Frei has written that ever since LPI moved to OSU, building “a state-of-the-art research facility to house the Institute and serve as a high-profile working memorial for Linus Pauling” had been one of LPI’s highest priorities.

A portion of the crowd assembled for the LPSC opening ceremonies, October 14, 2011.

A portion of the crowd assembled for the LPSC opening ceremonies, October 14, 2011.

The Linus Pauling Science Center was opened on October 14, 2011. Over 250 people attended the ceremony, during which Linus Pauling Jr. and OSU President Edward J. Ray delivered the main speeches. In his remarks, Dr. Ray noted his belief that “preventive health care is the future of medicine,” and that LPI and the Linus Pauling Science Center are in strong positions to develop this in the twenty-first century.

A light painting by Stephen Knapp, Linus Pauling Science Center.

A light painting by Stephen Knapp, Linus Pauling Science Center.

The center was designed by the firm ZGF Architects LLP, based in Portland, Oregon. It is a unique building with large windows and ample natural light. In addition, each of its floors is home to several works of art, including several light paintings created by Massachusetts-based artist Stephen Knapp, and those who work in the facility enjoy an enviable lunch spot on a fourth floor balcony looking toward the Coast Range mountains.

The view from the "lunch room."

The view from the “lunch room.”

Its lab space, however, is the real highlight of the Linus Pauling Science Center. Unlike most facilities, LPSC’s labs consist mostly of open space, with only a few partial walls separating research areas. Administrator Steve Lawson commented on this decision, noting “We didn’t want a lab environment with a lot of walls… For us, it’s a way to keep the Institute coherent and increase the possibility of people communicating.” In further pursuit of this goal, most of the Institute’s noisier lab equipment is kept behind closed doors in dedicated spaces away from the work environment, thus rendering the laboratories a more pleasant place to think and interact.

Peering down the LPSC laboratory space.

Peering down the LPSC laboratory space.

In recent time, LPI has also begun working to expand the staff supporting its very popular Healthy Aging Program and Healthy Youth Program. As part of this initiative, the Institute hired Kathy Magnusson, an expert on aging, memory, and degenerative brain diseases, to fill the role of Primary Investigator and to work with the Healthy Aging Program. Likewise, Corvallis High School partnered with LPI to develop the Spartan Garden, which is primarily student-run and is linked with outdoor horticulture classes that teach students about growing and preparing healthy foods.

Currently LPI has scheduled the seventh Diet and Optimum Health Conference for May 15-18, 2013, and has established an ambitious research agenda. At the time of this writing, LPI has twelve laboratories working on:

  • Oxidative stress, lipoic acid, and essential metals in atherosclerosis
  • Vitamin E metabolism and biological functions
  • Oxidative and environmental stress in Lou Gehrig’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Stress response, lipoic acid, and mitochondrial dysfunction in aging
  • Cancer chemoprotection by phytochemicals in tea and vegetables
  • Transplacental cancer chemoprotection
  • Epigenetic and epigenomic mechanisms of cancer etiology
  • Zinc and antioxidants in prostate cancer and neurodegeneration
  • Novel biological functions of vitamin C
  • Antioxidants and gene expression in diabetes
  • Dietary fats and carbohydrate and lipid metabolism
  • Vitamin D and zinc in immune function

Seventeen years after moving to Oregon with a core staff of five, LPI has regenerated its roster to 63 employees. Of particular note, Steve Lawson still works there, the only individual from the California days to remain. The Institute has remained prolific, has published three books (in addition to re-releases of two Pauling books) and continues to publish dozens of articles in various scientific and medical journals every year. The Institute also circulates a biannual research newsletter, available via the mail or through its website, lpi.oregonstate.edu.

Logo for the 2013 Diet and Optimum Health Conference.

Logo for the 2013 Diet and Optimum Health Conference.

The Institute is currently working to expand its support for its corpus of graduate student laboratory researchers, who are, as Balz Frei puts it, “the heart and soul of [LPI’s] labs at OSU.” To date, plans do not include any sort of major expansion of full-time staff, with a focus instead on further developing the staff infrastructure already in place. The Institute’s plan for 2013 and onward is to strengthen its current research projects and to acquire additional funds for scholarships, endowments, research, and educational programs. Lastly, LPI also hopes to broaden its outreach and health programs, such as the Diet and Optimum Health Conference, Healthy Aging Program, Healthy Youth Program, research newsletter, and Micronutrient Information Center.

One of LPI’s core missions is to “help people everywhere achieve a healthy and productive life, full of vitality, with minimal suffering, and free of cancer and other debilitating diseases.” As of 2013, the 40th anniversary of its founding and with many years of turbulence in its past, the Linus Pauling Institute appears to be in a better position than ever before to continue working towards this goal.

The OSU Era

LPI Director Balz Frei, 2010.

LPI Director Balz Frei, 2010.

[A history of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, Part 7 of 8

Despite Linus Pauling’s death in August 1994, prospects were finally beginning to look up for the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine. By early 1995, finances had improved and, crucially, LPISM had decided to move from Palo Alto, California, to the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

Even though the reorganization of the Institute after Emile Zuckerkandl’s departure had shrunk its staff from 75 to 50, it was still determined that LPISM was too big to move to Oregon in its then-current size. For one, many of its development obligations would no longer need to be assumed by Institute staffers, as the OSU Foundation had agreed to lead fundraising efforts, and other staffing redundancies were quickly becoming apparent.

CEO Steve Lawson began to meet regularly with OSU’s Dean of Research, Dick Scanlan, the two carefully studying their staff lists, deciding who and what was most likely to succeed at OSU. Eventually it was agreed that LPISM would move to OSU with a skeleton holdover staff of five people: Steve Lawson, Conor MacEvilly (biochemist), Vadim Ivanov (cardiovascular disease researcher), Svetlana Ivanova (Ivanov’s wife and research partner), and Waheed Roomi (researcher focusing on the cytotoxic molaity of vitamin C derivatives) would come to Oregon.

LPI Staff and faculty affiliate investigators, ca. 1996. Left to right: (back row) Waheed Roomi, Barbara McVicar, Stephen Lawson, Donald Reed, George Bailey, Vadim Ivanov, Ober Tyus; (front row) Svetlana Ivanova, Rosemary Wander, Peter Cheeke, Conor MacEvilly; (not pictured) David Williams, Philip Whanger.

LPI Staff and faculty affiliate investigators, ca. 1996. Left to right: (back row) Waheed Roomi, Barbara McVicar, Stephen Lawson, Donald Reed, George Bailey, Vadim Ivanov, Ober Tyus; (front row) Svetlana Ivanova, Rosemary Wander, Peter Cheeke, Conor MacEvilly; (not pictured) David Williams, Philip Whanger.

In preparing for the move, Lawson worked closely with Scanlan and OSU president Dr. John Byrne to hammer out the specifics of how to integrate LPISM into OSU. In 1995 Linus Pauling Jr., Lawson, and incoming OSU president Paul Risser all signed a Memorandum of Understanding that laid out how everything would be transferred to OSU, and how LPISM would be legally dissolved as a separate entity. OSU promised to provide the Institute with administrative and laboratory space on the fifth floor of Weniger Hall, which had just been renovated. The university also pledged additional funding for salary lines, and to work toward eventually housing LPISM in its own building should it someday outgrow Weniger Hall.

The big move was made in July 1996. LPISM was able to bring with it an endowment of $1.5 million, which the state of Oregon agreed to match. As they moved, the remaining staffers purged much of their material: Lawson estimated that they filled two full-sized dumpsters per week immediately before, during, and after the move.

Upon arrival, the Linus Pauling Institute was created as a separate entity from LPISM, which continued to exist as a shell company for several years afterward. LPISM needed to continue to live as many bequests had been specifically made out to LPISM, and there was the issue of standing lawsuits from Matthias Rath and another former staffer who was suing LPISM for wrongful termination. Due to these legal reasons, and despite the fact that, by 1996, it had ceased to exist on anything but paper, LPISM was not finally dissolved until the mid-2000s.


Maret Traber, one of the world's leading experts on vitamin E.

Maret Traber, one of the world’s leading experts on vitamin E.

Once settled in Corvallis, the Institute’s fortunes continued to improve. For one, the financial problems which had plagued the Institute for all of its life basically vanished. Regular influxes of donations coupled with residence at OSU saved a fortune for LPI, which no longer had to pay rent or keep a fundraising staff on its payroll.

Next, after a long and thorough search, Balz Frei was hired as director of LPI in the summer of 1997, a position that he holds to this day. The Institute spent the rest of the late 1990s setting up its research agenda and recruiting new faculty. In 1998 LPI hired Tory Hagen, Maret Traber, and Rod Dashwood, all acclaimed scientists whom Lawson described as the “research backbone of the Institute.” (presently all three hold endowed professorships) Shortly afterward David Williams was hired from within OSU as another principal investigator; he ended up holding numerous positions at LPI and was very important to its success in the following years.

In 2000 LPI launched one of its most successful projects: the Micronutrient Information Center, which has proven to be a highly popular and dynamic outreach program. The resource, which continues to expand, provides information on dietary intake and encouragement for healthy living. While it still advises vitamin C doses much higher than that recommended by the FDA, the numbers involved are far from Pauling’s recommended megadoses of the 1970s and ’80s.

lpi-conference-2003

The year 2001 was another big one for the Institute, in part because of their hosting the first Diet and Optimum Health Conference that winter. As part of the conference, they presented the first Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research to Dr. Bruce Ames, along with a $50,000 award. In the span of a decade, the Institute had gone from being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to being able to award a biennial prize of $50,000 – tangible evidence of a truly remarkable turnaround. That year LPI also hired Joe Beckman, who opened up a new area of research for LPI through his focus on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The ensuing decade was refreshingly free of drama – certainly so by past LPISM standards – and saw unprecedented growth. In 2002 the general expansion of LPI’s research support staff continued and in 2003 the second Diet and Optimum Health Conference was held with the signature prize going to Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University. The third, fourth, and fifth conferences were held in 2005, 2007, and 2009 with Drs. Paul Talalay, Mark Levine, and Michael Holick winning the awards at each event.  In 2011 the prize went to OSU alum Dr. Connie Weaver; this year the biennial conference is scheduled to take place in May, and another LPI Prize will be announced then.


Jane Higdon.

Jane Higdon, 1958-2006.

In an otherwise near-spotless decade of growth and good news, one tragic occurrence did befall the Linus Pauling Institute. On May 31, 2006, Jane Higdon, a prolific writer, well-known researcher, creator of the Micronutrient Information Center, and six-year veteran of LPI, was hit and killed by a logging truck while bicycling near her home in Eugene. In her honor, the Jane Higdon Foundation was established, the trucking company involved in the accident donated $1 million to bicycle safety programs, and LPI set up the Jane V. Higdon Memorial Fund. The Higdon Foundation’s goal is to create “scholarships and grants to encourage and empower girls and young women to pursue healthy and active lifestyles and academic excellence” and also to promote bicycle safety in Oregon’s Lane County. The Memorial Fund is largely dedicated to supporting the Micronutrient Information Center.

Buoyed by the success of its past outreach efforts, LPI decided to expand its education programs to include young people as well, launching the Healthy Youth Program in 2009. The Program is aimed at elementary- and middle school-age students, and promotes healthy lifestyles and nutrition.

At the same time, LPI responded to the “Physicians’ Health Study II on Vitamin C and E and the Risk for Heart Disease and Cancer.” Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study claimed that vitamins C and E were useless in treating cardiovascular disease. LPI retorted that the research directly contradicted numerous other contemporary studies, that it failed to accurately measure vitamins in the bloodstream, and that a ten-year study isn’t adequate time to gauge the effect of vitamins on cardiovascular disease.  LPI’s public response was emblematic of its participation in public debate; presently the Institute is looked upon as a respected and valuable contributor to many conversations concerning, as Linus Pauling would have put it, “how to live longer and feel better.”

For the first time in its existence, things were going very smoothly for LPI. As the first decade of the new millennium came to a close, the future looked even brighter, a welcome change from the past.  Exciting news was not long at hand.

The Linus Pauling Science Center

Artist's rendering of the Linus Pauling Science Center

Artist’s rendering of the Linus Pauling Science Center

Last Friday, September 25th, Oregon State University formally launched the construction of what will be the largest academic building on the OSU campus – the Linus Pauling Science Center.  Scheduled for completion in Spring 2011, the Pauling Science Center is a centerpiece of the on-going Campaign for OSU.

The crowd assembled on the west edge of campus for the launching ceremony.

The crowd assembled on the west edge of campus for the launching ceremony.

Linus Pauling’s extraordinary career was defined in large part by his ability to synthesize scientific details across disciplines.  His revolutionary work on the nature of the chemical bond, for example, involved at its core the marriage of the new physics – quantum mechanics, which Pauling studied as it was being developed by the great European scientists of the early and mid-1920s – with chemistry’s quest to understand how atoms bind together to form molecules.

The ambition of the Linus Pauling Science Center is, in a sense, to follow a similar model by bringing the entire faculty of the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) under the same roof as the OSU Department of Chemistry, as well as students and researchers in both the physical and life sciences.  LPI Director Balz Frei, speaking at the launch ceremony, suggested that the completion of the building promises to be a “seismic event” for work in the sciences at OSU.  And in a recent issue of the LPI research newsletter, Frei had this to say about the Institute’s aims for their new space.

Our goal is to have five laboratories in each of the three major areas of research in the Institute: cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, cancer chemoprotection, and healthy aging. We also continue to expand our outreach efforts, including the Micronutrient Information Center, which provides free, scientifically accurate information on vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and certain foods and beverages. We would like to enhance these efforts to educate people about the important role of diet and lifestyle and supplements in disease prevention, which is becoming increasingly urgent as healthcare costs continue to increase. We plan to get involved in school programs to encourage kids to exercise more and eat healthily, and we are in the process of setting up a study in older adults to investigate the beneficial effects of specific lifestyle changes in maintaining health.

Dr. Balz Frei, Director of the Linus Pauling Institute, at the launch ceremonies.

Dr. Balz Frei, Director of the Linus Pauling Institute, at the launch ceremonies.

OSU President Ed Ray.

OSU President Dr. Ed Ray.

George Pernsteiner, Chancellor of the Oregon University System.

George Pernsteiner, Chancellor of the Oregon University System.

This will not be the first building named for Linus Pauling.  In 1951 the Centro de Estudos Linus Pauling was christened at what was then known as the Universidade do Recife in Brazil.  A different Linus Pauling Study Center was dedicated in Santiago, Chile in 1992.  Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California is home to Linus and Ava Helen Pauling Hall; Caltech has named a lecture hall after Pauling in its Gates Laboratory of Chemistry; Corvallis boasts of Linus Pauling Middle School; and we have recently received word of a Linus Pauling Hospital being built in Madagascar!

Logo used by the Chilean Linus Pauling Study Center.

Logo used by the Chilean Linus Pauling Study Center.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times has more on the launch celebration, including a description of the commemorative beam signing that closed the event.