Getting to Know Richard van Breemen

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Richard van Breemen

[The end of 2018 will mark the conclusion of Richard van Breemen’s first year as director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Recently, the Pauling Blog sat down with Dr. Van Breemen to learn more about his scientific background, his career in research, and his vision for LPI.

Today’s post, which is part 1 of 3, focuses on his early years and his connections with Linus Pauling. The transcript that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity.]

Early Years

Pauling Blog: Tell us about your earliest interests in science.

Richard van Breemen: I come from a family with a fairly substantial scientific background. My grandfather on my mother’s side came from a homesteader family in Iowa. He was the first in his family to go to college, and he went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, stayed on there, got an early PhD in Physiology, became a faculty member, and eventually the department head of Physiology at the University of Iowa. My mother and father met each other at Iowa in graduate school; my father became a university professor as well. I moved around the country a little bit with him; he was at the University of Colorado and eventually became head of the Biology department at a state teacher’s college in Maryland called Salisbury University. So I’m a third-generation university professor.

So growing up, there was always science around the house. My mother got me and my brothers involved actively in the 4-H program in rural Maryland where we were, on the eastern shore. I had a county award-winning insect collection; I was learning about etymology at an early age. We had shell collections from coasts around the country. So there were lots of science projects going on around me; my parents made it a very rich environment in that sense. I’m very thankful to them.

PB: Can you tell us how this progressed? The progression of your scientific interests through your high school and undergraduate years?

RVB: In high school, I also developed an interest in music. I’ve found that quite a few scientists have also been interested in music over the years, so maybe there’s some part of the brain that is both music and science together. So I applied to colleges to be either an oboist, as an obo major, or as a physicist, a physics major. I chose Oberlin College because it offered both music conservatory and a strong science academic program.

I didn’t intend to major in chemistry, but I thought it was a good idea to take some first-year, maybe even second-year organic chemistry courses. Multiple times during my first semester of chemistry as an undergrad, Norman Craig, my teacher, said, “I’ll say this only once, because I hear some of you are still learning this in high school chemistry: this is 19th century and it’s wrong.” And every time he said that, that was exactly what I learned in high school chemistry. So I was intrigued by that.

By the end of my first semester, I was a chemistry major. So thereafter I talked with my advisor in school about a path to follow; what I was interested in doing. I wanted to merge chemistry with biology. Today we call that chemical biology, and there’s departments of this, like at Harvard and other schools around the country; departments of Chemical Biology. But that’s what I wanted to do back in the 1970s, and so I was steered towards a track – “maybe look into pharmacology or toxicology.”

PB: And then what happened?

RVB: Well, I went to the University of Iowa, where I had some family ties, and spent the summer as a junior working in a pharmacology laboratory. I was introduced to an analytical tool called a mass spectrometer and I was pretty much hooked on it from then on. Today, one of my hats is biomedical mass spectrometrist. So that was the beginning of that program.

So when it came time to apply to graduate school, I applied to schools of Toxicology and Pharmacology, and chose to go to Johns Hopkins University, in the Pharmacology program. At that time, and to this day, Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins has a very strong chemistry focus. I chose an advisor, Catherine Fenselau, who had been a student of Carl Djerassi at Stanford. Djerassi is a famous chemist, connected with the invention and early development of oral contraceptive pills. So what Catherine Fenselau did in Djerassi’s lab was to introduce him to the analytical tool of mass spectrometry, which he vigorously pursued for many years thereafter. Catherine moved from Stanford eventually to Johns Hopkins University, in Pharmacology, in 1967, and brought into that medical school, for the first time, mass spectrometry. I became her first graduate student at Johns Hopkins. So in a sense, I trace my lineage to Carl Djerassi; like my grandfather in graduate education.

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Carl Djerassi

So in that context, I learned about drug metabolism, analytical chemistry, in terms of how it can help solve chemical structures for new chemical entities, but also to follow how molecules change in the body. Mass spectrometry is also quantitative, and it shows you how much of a compound might be in blood or tissue. To this day, I use that as a tool for all of my research.

PB: The tool has changed a fair amount, I have a feeling.

RVB: In the 1980s, as a graduate student, mass spectrometry was a very exciting time. I tell the story to my students about how there have been three eras of mass spectrometry. The first one was the era of the physicists, using and inventing mass spectrometry to prove the existence of isotopes of the elements. Second era was the organic era, and that was championed by people like Carl Djerassi, Klaus Biemenn, and others who showed how mass spectrometers could be used to determine structures of organic molecules. At the end of each of these eras, professors were telling their students: “Don’t go into mass spectrometry, the field is done.” Physicists told their students back in the 1940s, “We’ve identified all the elements, all the isotopes. Don’t get involved in this field.” And then, by the end of the 1970s, organic chemists were telling their students, “Don’t get involved in mass spectrometry, because we know everything there is to know about the interpretation of mass spectrum that has application to organic molecules.”

Then, as a graduate student, new techniques were introduced to ionize macromolecules, to make proteins of sixty-thousand, a hundred-thousand molecular weight gas phase ions that could be manipulated in the vacuum of a mass spectrometer and measured, and the structures determined. So we’re still in that era of biomedical mass spectrometry, which has been the subject of Nobel Prizes for people like Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn, who shared the Nobel Prize for applying mass spectrometry to protein structure determinations and weighing them.

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John Fenn visiting the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections storage stacks, 2012.

PB: What was your sense of Linus Pauling when you were a student?

RVB: Well, I was aware of Linus Pauling for that fabulous chemistry textbook that he had written for undergrads, but also for his work with the structure of proteins and the alpha helix and crystallography; with x-ray crystallography of protein structures. So the chemical bond, in his work, was structures of macromolecules.

And of course I grew up in an era where, in public school, we were told to hide under our desks or go into the hall in case there was a nuclear strike, and so Pauling’s work to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and halt the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was something I was very aware of in the early 1960s. And one could think of that as sort of the next stage of his career, when he became an activist in world peace.

Of course now, in the Linus Pauling Institute, I’m realizing that the last stage of his scientific career, where he was involved with how natural products – vitamins, minerals, micronutrients – can help maintain health and prevent disease; that’s something he was very active with from the 1970s until he passed away in the 1990s.

Meeting Linus Pauling

PB: You met Pauling, did you not? When you were at NC State?

RVB: Yes, I did. This was during my very first year, and in my first academic job as an independent assistant professor. The department of Physics at North Carolina State continues to have an endowed lecture program, and they invited Pauling to give a lecture in the fall of 1986, and I was lucky enough to not only attend this lecture but to go to a reception in his honor, to get a chance to talk to Pauling for five or six minutes on my own. I was mainly asking him about – he was passionate about teaching, educating new generations of young people, undergraduate teaching, as well as graduate education. I was teaching organic chemistry for the very first time, and some of my colleagues were skipping the chapter of organic chemistry books that deals with spectroscopic characterization and the identification of organic molecules – that includes mass spectrometry, as well as nuclear magnetic resonances, infrared spectroscopy, ultraviolets spectroscopy, and so on. It was optional.

So I wanted to teach it. Not all of my colleagues were, because they wanted to spend more time on the other chapters. We all had to start with the same textbook and the same chapter and finish by the end of the semester on the same chapter, but in between we were free to teach however we felt best. So I included that chapter on spectroscopy and the determination of organic chemical structures. Pauling said that was just fine and in his chemistry textbooks, he told me he had a chapter describing mass spectrometry too, so he thought that I should follow my heart on that one. I didn’t think to ask him about his Linus Pauling Institute. Of course I couldn’t have known where I would be all these years later, but if I had, I would’ve asked him more about that aspect of his career, and what he was doing in his Institute at that time. His lecture was actually about the structures of certain kinds of crystals-a physics lecture, in this particular case [on quasicrystals].

A Pauling Research Connection

RVB: With Norman Farnsworth, who has now passed away, but was a very esteemed, world-famous pharmacognosist, we founded the first NIH-funded botanical center for dietary supplements research in 1999. That grew out of the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act, known as DSHEA, of 1994. And here’s a Pauling connection.

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Norman Farnsworth

In the 1970s, when Linus Pauling got to being very active in research with vitamin C and cancer prevention, there was a move by the Food and Drug Administration, and by Congress, to regulate vitamin C and other vitamins as potential drugs or therapeutic agents. Pauling argued, testified before Congress, worked very diligently, to help keep vitamins and mineral supplements over-the-counter. He felt that that these compounds were so safe that it wasn’t necessary to make them prescription-only. First, he advocated for larger doses of Vitamin C than was necessary to prevent scurvy, but that’s the whole area of research that became the Linus Pauling Institute.

So he was successful, Congress only passed laws that helped regulate the amounts of certain nutrients and for the most part vitamins and mineral supplements remain over-the-counter…of course, there are prescription medicines for pregnant women who need extra vitamins during the prenatal period.

Skip ahead twenty years to the 1993-94 period of time, and Congress revisited whether dietary supplements should be regulated in a new and different way. This was towards the end of Linus Pauling’s career – or, his whole life – but he still weighed in on this. And I was just checking some of the facts and figures in this archive here at the Oregon State University Library, and Pauling did have written into the Congressional Record some of his opinions regarding the possible regulation or why dietary supplements should not be overly regulated, and I think he had another major effect because people listened to him in Congress.

And I think what came out of that period of Congressional hearings was the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994, which created a niche market for dietary supplements: they are neither drugs and regulated by prescription, nor are they foods, which has a whole different set of regulations. But it did authorize the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate what’s on the label, and to act if anything was being marketed that was harmful. The FDA has since issued a regulation that requires dietary supplements to be produced using good manufacturing practice. That wasn’t initially part of their regulations, but that has been added since.

So part of the DSHEA Act was to establish the Office of Dietary Supplements within the NIH – ODS – and gave them money by statute to investigate the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements with the mission of protecting the health of the consumer. And by 1999, the very first grant out of that Office of Dietary Supplements was issued, and there were two grants funded that year, one to University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was, working with Norman Farnsworth, and the other to UCLA. That program has continued to this day, and when I left the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was the director of that botanical center. I wasn’t able to move it to Oregon State University, but the grant continues, and I continue to work with them, running a project in an analytical core to support the work that we began in 1999, looking at the safety and efficacy of botanical dietary supplements used by women.

So there’s a little overlap with Linus Pauling and the work I was doing in Chicago before coming here.

Pauling’s Enduring Legacy

PB: What is your sense of Linus Pauling’s legacy today?

RVB: Well, Pauling’s legacy, it continues in many, many ways. He, of course, received his first Nobel Prize for his work on the chemical bond, using a synthesis of theory and laboratory experiment to prove what the nature of the sigma bond is between atoms, like two carbons. All of chemistry today owes him a lot in that sense; he was extremely brilliant in many respects, he thought ahead. When I talked with him at that brief meeting during his lecture in North Carolina, he told me he was writing his next paper in the back of his mind as we were speaking. But he typically would write a paper, have all the aspects of it worked out in his mind, before sitting down with a typewriter.

He obviously had a lot of things going on at any one time. He was ahead of his time in his efforts to contain nuclear weapons – I think most of the world caught up later to realize how important that work was, in leading to the test ban treaty.

I think the work that began the Linus Pauling Institute was also well ahead of its time. He certainly received a lot of criticism. I think folks in biomedical research might’ve circled their wagons and said, “well, you’re a chemist, what do you know about cancer and cancer prevention?” But in many respects, he was ahead of his time there, and we now know, not only can vitamins prevent the diseases of malnutrition, but they do have benefits beyond simply keeping all of the biochemical pathways working. So to say that vitamin C has no benefits at all as supplements, of course, wouldn’t be true, because it prevents the disease of scurvy, and then there’s rickets and other vitamin deficiency diseases. So we definitely know that vitamins are essential for human health. The question is, what’s the optimum for human health? And that’s something that the Linus Pauling Institute began exploring and, to this day, we are continuing to work on that.

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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Pauling in Memorium

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Linus Pauling Jr. speaking at his father’s memorial service, August 29, 1994.

[Part 4 of 4]

On August 29th, 1994, a memorial service planned by Pauling’s children and his long-time assistant Dorothy Munro was held at Memorial Church on the campus of Stanford University. Many people spoke, including Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine administrator Steve Lawson, Oregon State University president John Byrne, and scientific colleagues Frank Catchpool and Verner Schomaker.

Remembrances were likewise offered by close friends and family. Pauling’s youngest son Crellin spoke movingly, while also offering comments written by his brother Peter, who was living in Wales at the time and was unable to travel to attend the memorial. Pauling’s daughter Linda, and eldest son Linus Jr., also gave their heartfelt goodbyes to their father. Steve Rawlings, the ranch hand who had cared for Pauling for the past several years, spoke of the bond that they had formed. Four of Pauling’s grandchildren – Cheryl and David Pauling, and Barky and Sasha Kamb – recalled fond memories of their Grandpa.

The memorial program featured a quote to remember Pauling by, one taken from his 1958 book, No More War. It read:

Science is the search for truth- it is not a game in which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harm to others. We need to have the spirit of science in international affairs, to make the conduct of international affairs the effort to find the right solution, the just solution of international problems, not the effort by each nation to get the better of other nations, to do harm to them when it is possible. I believe in morality, in justice, in humanitarianism.


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Linus Pauling Jr. speaking at the grand opening of the Linus Pauling Science Center, October 19, 2011.

With its director of research and namesake now gone, the reigns at LPISM were taken up by Linus Pauling Jr. In so doing, Linus Jr. sought mainly to secure his father’s long-term legacy by moving his beloved but financially unstable institute from its location in Palo Alto, and to associate it with a prestigious academic institution, where it might find new and greater successes.

Along with Lawson and the Institute’s Board of Trustees, Linus Jr. entered into conversations with a number of universities where they believed that LPISM’s orthomolecular mission might find support. At the same time, the Institute benefited greatly from a large number of memorial donations and bequests made in honor of Pauling. Ultimately, an agreement was struck between the Institute and Oregon State University, which offered to match those contributions.

This resulting endowment in hand, a new director, Balz Frei, was brought on board and, at its new home in Corvallis, the Linus Pauling Institute was reborn. While still able to engage in the orthomolecular research that Pauling had always envisioned, the move to OSU offered the Institute the opportunity to open up new lines of research in other areas of human health. When Linus Jr. gave the keynote address at the grand opening of OSU’s brand new Linus Pauling Science Center in 2011, he spoke of this evolution.

I’ve appreciated other people’s recognition of (my father’s) capabilities and endeavors, and done what I can to increase that appreciation and recognition. My whole investment in LPI was part of that too, recognizing my father’s contribution to society…and wanting to make sure in some way that he didn’t get lost in the sands of time. What has happened has pleased me. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to personally do more than I have done. I don’t think I’m going to try… I’m very appreciative of those who have dedicated themselves to the continuation of my father’s reputation. I feel that I can rest assured that he will not be forgotten.


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Linus Pauling’s humble marker at the Oswego Pioneer Cemetery, as photographed in 2009.

Before he died, Pauling made clear his wish to be cremated and to have his ashes, along with those of his wife, interred in Lake Oswego, Oregon at the Pioneer Cemetery where his parents were buried. In 1994, a cenotaph – which is a marker honoring a person whose remains are elsewhere – was placed in the family plot by Pauling’s sister, Pauline. Pauling’s ashes remained with Ava Helen’s among family in California until 2005, when they were finally moved to Oregon and placed alongside those of Pauling’s parents, Herman and Belle.

In 2013, an Oregon resident named Jean Crellin Ashby took her mother to see Linus Pauling’s grave at Pioneer Cemetery. Ashby is the granddaughter of Edward Webster Crellin, a mentor and colleague of Linus Pauling’s at Caltech, and the man after whom Pauling named his youngest son. Standing over Pauling’s marker, Ashby thought about how her grandparents were buried in Pasadena. Since she was unable to easily visit their graves, given the considerable distance, Ashby decided that honoring Pauling’s family in Lake Oswego would also serve to honor her own. Subsequently, Ashby contacted cemetery administrators and filed the appropriate paperwork to become the official caretaker for the Pauling plot, which she and her family still maintain today.


It is Pauling’s legacy that we honor on this, the twenty-second anniversary of his passing. And what better way to reflect on that legacy than to return to the diary entry that Pauling wrote when he began the history of his life at the age of 16. In it, Pauling said that his history was not intended to be merely a life’s story. Rather, it was to be a reflection on good times had in his passage through this “vale of tears”

Often, I hope, I shall glance over what I have written before, and ponder and meditate on the mistakes that I have made—on the good luck that I have had—on the carefree joy of my younger days; and pondering, I shall resolve to remedy my mistakes, to bring back my good luck, and to regain my happiness.

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Pauling’s Final Years

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Pauling posing at lower campus, Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1917.

[An examination of the end of Linus Pauling’s life, part 1 of 4]

In 1917, at sixteen years of age, Linus Pauling wrote in his personal diary that he was beginning a personal history. “My children and grandchildren will without doubt hear of the events in my life with the same relish with which I read the scattered fragments written by my granddad,” he considered.

By the time of his death, some seventy-seven years later, Pauling had more than fulfilled this prophecy. After an extraordinarily full life filled with political activism, scientific research, and persistent controversy, Pauling’s achievements were remembered not only by his children, grandchildren and many friends, but also by an untold legion of people whom Pauling himself never met.

Passing away on August 19th 1994 at the age of 93, Pauling’s name joined those of his wife and other family members at the Oswego Pioneer Cemetery in Oregon. What follows is an account of the final three years of his life.


 

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Linus Pauling, 1991.

In 1991, Pauling first learned of the cancer that would ultimately take his life. Having experiencing bouts of chronic intestinal pain, Pauling underwent a series of tests at Stanford Hospital that December. The diagnosis that he received was grim: he had cancer of the prostate, and the disease had spread to his rectum.

Between 1991 and 1992, Pauling underwent a series of surgeries, including the excision of a tumor by resection, a bilateral orchiectomy, and subsequent hormone treatments using a nonsteroidal antiandrogen called flutamide. During this time, Pauling also self-treated his illness with megadoses of vitamin C, a protocol that he favored not only for its perceived orthomolecular benefits, but also as a more humane form of treatment than chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Pauling’s interest in nutrition dated to at least the early 1940s, when he had faced another life-threatening disease, this time a kidney affliction called glomerulonephritis. Absent the aid of contemporary treatments like renal dialysis – which was first put into use in 1943 – Pauling’s survival hinged upon a rigid diet prescribed by Stanford Medical School nephrologist, Dr. Thomas Addis.  At the time a radical approach to the treatment of this disease, Addis’ prescription that Pauling minimize stress on his kidneys by limiting his protein and salt intake, while also increasing the amount of water that he drank, saved Pauling’s life and led to his making a full recovery. Though his famous fascination with vitamin C would not emerge until a couple of decades later, Pauling’s nephritis scare instilled in him a belief that dietary control and optimal nutrition might effectively combat a myriad of diseases. This scientific mantra continued to guide Pauling’s self-treatment of his cancer until nearly the end of his life.

Pauling also believed that using vitamin C as a treatment would, as opposed to chemotherapy, allow him to die with dignity. Were his condition terminal and his outlook essentially hopeless, Pauling felt very strongly that he should be permitted to pass on without “unnecessary suffering.” Pauling’s wife, Ava Helen, had died of cancer in December 1981. She too had refused chemotherapy and other conventional approaches for much of her illness, a time period during which Linus Pauling had helped his wife the only way he knew how: by administering a treatment involving megadoses of vitamin C. This attempt ultimately failed and, by his own admission, Pauling never really recovered from his wife’s passing.

Nonetheless, Pauling continued to lead research efforts to substantiate the value of vitamin C as a preventive for cancer and heart disease in his capacity as chairman of the board of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine (LPISM). By the time of his own diagnosis in 1991 however, the Institute was in a desperate financial situation, several hundred thousand dollars in debt and lacking the funds necessary to pay its staff.


 

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In 1992, while he recovered from his surgeries and managed his illness, Pauling continued to act as chairman of the board of the LPISM. No longer able to live entirely on his own, he split his time between his son Crellin’s home in Portola Valley, California, and his beloved Deer Flat Ranch at Big Sur. When at the ranch, Pauling was cared for in an unofficial capacity by his scientific colleague, Matthias Rath. Pauling was first visited by Rath, a physician, in 1989, having met him years earlier in Germany while on a peace tour. Rath was also interested in vitamin C, and Pauling took him on as a researcher at the Institute. There, the duo collaborated on investigations concerning the influence of lipoproteins and vitamin C on cardiovascular disease.

Not long after Pauling’s cancer diagnosis, a professor at UCLA, Dr. James Enstrom, published epidemiological studies showing that 500 mg doses of vitamin C could extend life by protecting against heart disease and also various cancers. This caused a resurgence of interest in orthomolecular medicine, and it seemed that Pauling and Rath’s vision for the future of the Institute was looking brighter.

As it happened, this bit of good news proved to be too little and too late. LPISM had already begun to disintegrate financially, its staff cut by a third. The Institute’s vice president, Richard Hicks, resigned his position, and Rath, as Pauling’s protégé, was appointed in his place. Following this, the outgoing president of LPISM, Emile Zuckerlandl, was succeeded by Pauling’s eldest son, Linus Pauling Jr. Finally Pauling, his health in decline, announced his retirement as chairman of the board and was named research director, with Steve Lawson appointed as executive officer to assist in the day-to-day management of what remained of the Institute.

One day prior to his retirement as board chairman, Pauling signed a document in which he requested that Rath carry on his “life’s work.” Linus Pauling Jr. and Steve Lawson, however, had become concerned about Rath’s role at the Institute, and particularly on the issue of a patent agreement that Rath had neglected to sign. Adhering to the patent document was a requirement for every employee at the Institute, including Linus Pauling himself. When pressed on the issue, Rath opted to resign his position, and was succeeded as vice president by Stephen Maddox, a fundraiser at LPISM.

After this transition, Pauling met with Linus Jr. to discuss the Institute’s dire straits. Pauling’s youngest son, Crellin, had also became more active with the Institute as his father’s illness progressed, in part because he had been assigned the role of executor of Pauling’s will. Together, Crellin, Linus Jr., and Steve Lawson struggled to identify a path forward for LPISM. Eventually it was decided that associating the Institute with a university, and focusing its research on orthomolecular medicine as a lasting legacy to Pauling’s work, would be the most viable avenue for keeping the Institute alive. The decision to associate the organization with Oregon State University, Pauling’s undergraduate alma mater, had not been made by the time that Pauling passed away.

Vitamin C and Cancer: Rays of Hope

 

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[Part 4 of 4]

Ridiculed by the medical profession for two decades, the tide began to shift for vitamin C and cancer starting in 1992. That year, the New York Academy of Sciences voted to discuss high-dose vitamins and nutrients at its annual meeting, devoting several sessions to the antioxidant properties of vitamin C and its potential value at higher-than-dietary amounts in preventing lung, stomach, colon, and rectal cancers.

Oddly, throughout the proceedings, one prominent name had been missing from the conversation, a point noted by a professor from Alabama who finally spoke up, saying,

For three days I have been listening to talks about the value of large intakes of vitamin C and other natural substances, and I have not heard a single mention of the name Linus Pauling. Has not the time come when we should admit that Linus Pauling was right all along?


Since 1996 the Linus Pauling Institute, relocated from California, has continued work on cancer from it’s new home at Oregon State University. Basing these contemporary orthomolecular studies on the hard sciences of cellular biology, molecular biology, and organic chemistry, the Institute continues to explore the cutting edge of health and nutrition research.

Working under Dr. Balz Frei, the current director of the Institute, as well as former LPI principal investigator Dr. Roderick Dashwood (now director of the Center for Epigenetics and Disease Prevention at Texas A&M University), OSU student Matt Kaiser has spent time analyzing the benefits of vitamin C treatment for colorectal cancer, which remains the third leading cause of cancer related deaths in the United States. The Pauling Blog has interviewed Kaiser in the past, and we met with him again recently to gain a better sense of trends in the community of researchers interested in vitamin C and cancer.


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One primary question that begs further exploration is, why didn’t earlier studies find evidence of the value of vitamin C?

As it turns out, the problem appears to have been primarily located in the way that vitamin C was being administered. The 1979 Mayo studies to which Pauling so strongly objected had assumed that, since vitamin C was filtered out of the body after a certain point of blood saturation, higher doses need not be examined. This assumption – that excess vitamin C could not be absorbed and was simply excreted in the urine – was one of the most basic issues of contention that Pauling was never able to get past with the medical community. However, it now appears that the assumption applies only if vitamin C is taken as an oral supplement, a breakthrough that was first identified by Mark Levine, a Senior Investigator at the National Institutes of Health.

Matt Kaiser explains

Mark Levine realized in the 1990s that the way drugs are distributed and function in the body [pharmacokinetics] can drastically change the amount of vitamin C entering blood plasma. Eating vitamin C you can only get about 250 micromolar [a measure of vitamin C, or ascorbate— to use its chemical name— that can be concentrated in the blood stream]. With intravenous injection, the levels are much larger: 200 times. One millimole is a thousand micromoles, so 30 millimolar [of ascorbate in blood plasma] is a huge difference!

At these high pharmacological— or even super physiological— doses, Levine found that cancer cell populations dropped significantly. To understand why, it is important to know a bit about how cancer works.

Human DNA can wrap up tight (heterochromatin) or unwind into a loose, more open configuration (euchromatin). When it is wrapped up tight, the genetic information on the DNA cannot be expressed. This is because transcription, which is the process by which a cell reads and expresses the genetic code, requires access to DNA.

There are very specific times when DNA should be wrapped tight to maintain optimum health, and other times when one’s body needs to be able to use the instructions for cellular function that are contained in DNA. When DNA needs to be unwound, molecules called histone acetyltransferases (HATs) help to unwind it. When it needs to be wound up tight, the process is aided by histone deacetylases (HDACs).

HDAC overexpression is a hallmark of cancer cells, and hyperactive HDAC cells lead to messy, knotted DNA winding. This biological circumstance hinders the cell from reading important instructions found in DNA, which in turn prevents the production of important tumor suppressor proteins. At the same time, it leaves certain sections of the genetic code open that should not be expressed.

“Basically,” says Kaiser, “You remove the break from the car, and then you also step on the gas. And that’s cancer.”


kaiser

Matthew Kaiser.

The prevailing theory of how vitamin C acts on tumors is that it functions as a “prodrug,” meaning that it stimulates biochemical processes that allow something else to kill the cancer cell, rather than acting on it directly. In this case, the active agent is hydrogen peroxide, which is produced in saturated tissues by excess vitamin C. “Vitamin C acts as the Trojan horse that allows hydrogen peroxide to enter the tumor site,” Kaiser explains. “You can’t inject it straight in; your body will react too strongly. Hydrogen peroxide is a reactive oxygen species…it tears cells apart.”

However, since working on the project, Kaiser has found that this consensus on how vitamin C fights cancer isn’t necessarily the whole story. Pharmacological levels of ascorbate appear to selectively reduce the presence of proteins that regulate reactive oxygen species, like hydrogen peroxide, in cancerous cells. Some of these same proteins also happen to promote cell growth, which is not something that one would wish for cancer cells to do. In addition to producing hydrogen peroxide, ascorbate actually inhibits the runaway HDAC production that makes cancer cells so dangerous.

“What makes it really hard, really complicated,” Kaiser laments, “is that this might not work the same way for different types of cancer cells in different locations. There’s still so much to understand about how vitamin C is having this protective effect…That’s what’s lacking and that’s why we need studies like this.”


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And indeed, more studies are coming. In keeping with it’s mission to extend and promote what it calls “healthspan,” LPI hosts a bi-annual Diet and Optimum Health Conference, bringing together experts from around the world to talk about topics in orthomolecular medicine, among other fields. This year the conference, which was held at OSU in September, featured several speakers discussing vitamin C and cancer. One of them was Dr. Mark Levine, the NIH scientist who first showed the value of intravenous ascorbate.

Margreet Vissers and Anita Carr, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, also described their own advances on the subject. Vissers found in her studies that levels of 50 micromolar ascorbate in blood plasma (average dietary levels are between 40 and 80) had little to no protective effect against cancer. Doubling the amount to 100 micromolar, however, boosted a patient to the lowest level of the protective range. It would seem, then, that Pauling was right to suggest that mega doses might be important for optimum health.

Vissers also explained that, in animal models, ascorbate injected intravenously will peak after about twenty hours in both healthy tissue and in tumors. However, unlike the healthy tissue, tumor tissues hold onto the vitamin C and do not return to a natural baseline. This detail is important because it allows high doses of ascorbate to build up in tumor tissue, and these doses disproportionately kill cancer cells instead of healthy tissues for reasons that are still not fully understood.

Conversely, the dangers of using vitamin C, even in high intravenous doses, appear to be small. While some people harbor an enzymatic deficiency that can cause a severe negative reaction, most individuals simply cannot overdose on vitamin C. Even in the blood plasma, vitamin C usually reaches a saturation point and is filtered from the body.

At the LPI conference, Dr. Carr pointed out that this form of treatment also dramatically improves the quality of life of cancer patients as compared to chemotherapy. For one, vitamin C treatments involve significantly less pain, mental and physical fatigue, nausea and insomnia. As of March 2015, three clinical trials involving pharmacological levels of ascorbate have been conducted, all of them showing that it is well tolerated by patients and reduces chemotherapy-related toxicity.

Additionally, vitamin C at high doses is known to aid cognitive function, and these positive benefits work together to aid in social satisfaction for the patient. As Pauling pointed out in the 1970s, it is not only the disease that the doctor should be concerned about treating, but the patient as well.


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Pauling in 1989 – an extraordinary life. Photo by Paolo M. Sutter.

So is Linus Pauling vindicated when it comes to vitamin C and cancer? The answer is complicated.

On the one hand, it would appear that vitamin C can serve as an important preventative and treatment for cancer. However, the method that Pauling advocated— taking large supplemental doses orally— is pretty clearly not an effective form of application. Rather, contemporary research indicates that the levels of ascorbate that are required to slow or stop tumor growth are far greater than that which can be achieved naturally by ingesting vitamin C; they can be accomplished only by intravenous injections of ascorbate. Furthermore, it is likely that this form of treatment will not replace, but instead will augment, existing protocols including chemotherapy.

But the broader trend is optimistic and, one might argue, validating. And with the Linus Pauling Institute and many others around the world continuing to investigate the potential for vitamin C and other nutrients to help people live longer and feel better, exciting new studies on optimum diet and effective treatments for diseases like cancer would appear to be on the near horizon.

Continuing Work on Vitamin C and Cancer: An Interview with Matthew Kaiser

Matthew Kaiser.

Matthew Kaiser.

The blog recently had the opportunity to sit down with Matthew Kaiser, an Oregon State University undergraduate senior in microbiology from Salem, Oregon.  Kaiser, who hopes to pursue a career as an MD/Ph.D., has led an exciting research project on the potential treatment of cancer using intravenous vitamin C.  He also recently delivered a talk titled “Is Humanity Ready for an Upgrade?” at a recent TEDx symposium hosted by OSU.

What follows below is an edited excerpt of our interview with Kaiser in which he discusses the roots of his project, its potential application, and his experience of conducting and presenting high level research at a very young age.

The Roots of the Research Project 

The beginnings of this research project were more or less like most undergraduate project tend to start. Not all, but some tend to be these big black box projects, we call them, in that there are a lot of unknowns. It’s almost like, “we really don’t know a lot about this but hey, we’ll give it to an undergraduate to take a stab at it. Because even that way if it doesn’t work out, if we find out that there really is no story here, they get the research experience and then we don’t necessarily waste a graduate student’s time or post-doc’s time on a project that didn’t end up being published.”

But where this project started was, of course, back in the days of Linus Pauling who was among the first to suggest that high doses of Vitamin C could have an anti-cancer effect. But following his initial studies with Vitamin C, or ascorbate, there were studies that came out by the Mayo Clinic and other labs that showed that Vitamin C did not have a protective or anticancer effect. And so it was largely abandoned by the medical community for several years but it continued to be researched in kind of an alternative medicine environment. Through that, as our understanding of how Vitamin C is metabolized by the body developed, we were able to understand that if Vitamin C was delivered orally, it was completely different than how Vitamin C could be regulated if it was administered through an IV, because if you administer it through an IV you’re able to bypass all the digestive control and renal reabsorption in your small intestine. That normally would limit the amount of Vitamin C that gets into your bloodstream and then becomes vitally available.

So this project started kind of on the cusp of these exciting studies looking at the pharmacokinetics and, again, looking at the bioavailability of Vitamin C. And just to put it in perspective: so if you go home and eat fifty oranges, like all my friends like to try and do because they know I work on Vitamin C, they’re like “oh, Vitamin C and cancer, I can eat fifty oranges, right? And I can prevent cancer or cure myself or colon cancer?” And what we’re looking at in this project are doses that can only be achieved by IV because if you eat these fifty oranges, the maximum you can saturate your blood plasma level is about 220 micromolar. To put it in perspective, so if you can saturate your blood to a level of about 200 micromolar following oral ascorbate, if you go home and had an IV or you went to a clinic and you had an infusion of IV ascorbate, you can saturate blood plasma up to 30 millimolar. And there’s a thousand micromolars in one millimolar. So, extremely different doses can be achieved by these two different routes.

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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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