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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Out of Ashes, the Phoenix Rose

Linus Pauling Jr., October 14, 2011.

Linus Pauling Jr., October 14, 2011.

[Coda to our history of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine]

Linus Pauling Science Center grand opening Keynote Address, by Linus Pauling Jr., MD. October 14, 2011.

This is a very personal account of the background that has miraculously led to this wonderful, beautiful and exciting building, I title it: OUT OF ASHES THE PHOENIX ROSE.

It was back in the spring of 1991, just over 20 years ago now, that I sat down to talk with my father at his Big Sur ranch on the rugged California coast. For many years, in fact since my mother died a decade earlier, my wife and I had made a pilgrimage to the ranch to be with my father and celebrate our three birthdays, which fortuitously fell within a two-week period.

I had been on the Board since the Palo Alto Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine’s inception in 1973, so at our 1991 meeting I knew the situation had become desperate. My father, who for all his earlier life had been full of remarkable energy and ambition, now at 90 had lost that energy and was making mistakes in judgment. He was ill with the cancer that would kill him three years later.

LPISM was failing: half a million dollars of debt, laboratory research had vanished for lack of incentive and direction, donor income was being diverted to non-nutritional investigations, there were no research grants and morale was in the basement.

As his oldest son, I could not just stand by and watch this great man’s efforts of the past quarter century go down the drain, along with his reputation. If the Institute failed, all the naysayers would crow and describe him as a senile crackpot in spite of his astonishing lifetime achievements. Additionally, the thousands of donors over the years and the makers of future bequests would feel betrayed. It was obvious he needed help. As his son, I felt it was necessary to provide that help and it felt good to me to try.

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So we had to talk. Early in my life I realized that my father was a very special person with talents I could never hope to emulate. That was emphasized by this story which I enjoy telling. When I was about 15, my father was writing an introductory chemistry textbook for Caltech freshmen, the best and brightest college freshmen, the cream of the crop. At the end of each chapter were questions. He asked me to read a chapter and answer the questions. I tried, valiantly, but I did not understand the text and could not answer a single question. When my mother heard about this, she hurried down to the Pasadena City Hall to have my name officially changed from Linus Carl Pauling to Linus Carl Pauling Jr. so no one could possibly mistake me for him.

At least I had sense enough to follow a very different track from my father, one that eventually gave me skills that now could be used to help him as my thanks to him for bringing me into the world.

It was now or never, so I boldly waded in. He and I discussed the future, starting with the past. I talked about his amazing life with his multiple triumphs in so many and so very diverse arenas.

His fame was world-wide, originating with the scientific community. I pointed out that he was arguably the first, and certainly the most successful, bridge-builder between chemistry, mathematics, physics, medicine and biology, linking these disciplines to create what is now the most popular science of all, molecular biology. One result of his creativity, hard work and dedication to science, as you all know, was the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

It was during this time period that his interest in nutrition originated, spurred by his own life-threatening kidney disease. Thanks to a rigid diet prescribed by Stanford Medical School nephrologist Dr. Thomas Addis at a time long before renal dialysis, and carefully supervised by my mother, my father not only survived a usually fatal disease but recovered completely.

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After World War II, prompted by my politically-liberal mother whom he certainly loved deeply and wanted to please, he embarked on a spectacularly successful two decades of humanitarian effort, educating the governments of the world and, necessarily, their peoples, about the evils of war and the dangers associated with unrestricted exposure to radiation, especially that produced by the hundreds of nuclear bomb tests being conducted. He suffered vilification by many from all parts of the world. He was hounded by the FBI and the United States government.

His crowning moment of glory, at least in my estimation, was his indomitable courage in confronting those nasty witch hunters, the United States Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, when facing imprisonment when he refused to disclose the names of his ban-the-bomb United Nations petition assistants. He knew that these conscientious people, most of them scientists, would be less able than he was to defend themselves from accusations and loss of employment. The Subcommittee, when faced by my father’s public popularity, courage, remarkable memory and command of facts, then backed off, their collective tail between their legs. His world-wide influence was so extensive and the result so positive that he was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

So what was next for him? His old interest in nutrition as a factor in health and well-being resurfaced. Starting with vitamin C, he promoted nutrient research and encountered resistance from university, medical and government bureaucracies. He turned to the public, writing article after article and giving hundreds of talks, with the result of an explosion in popular food supplement usage. But research remained a fundamental necessity, so the private nonprofit Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine was founded in 1973 and initially showed promise.

By the time of our talk in 1991, LPISM’s outlook was dismal.

At age 90, my father was tired and dispirited. Being fully occupied with his own illness, he was unwilling to devote energy to coping with his Institute’s problems. I said to him that I could not in good conscience stand by and see his eponymous Institute go down in ignominious defeat. With his incredibly illustrious past, I felt strongly that he deserved more than that. And maybe, just maybe, I could do something about it.

We decided, together, that if the Institute, and also his reputation, were to survive, the best course of action was for the Institute to affiliate with a reputable university. That would ensure the rigorous scientific attitude and protocol necessary to legitimize micronutrient research in the future. And, most important of all, we had to be ethically responsible to the thousands of past, present and future donors who believed in my father and supported the Institute. We could not let them down.

I had just retired from 35 years of the practice of psychiatry, so I had the time and energy to devote to other endeavors. After discussion with my wife, I decided to offer to take over management of the Institute. I had to have my wife’s agreement, because I was planning to spend considerable time in Palo Alto, a long way from my home in Honolulu.

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To his credit and with an audible sigh of relief, my father agreed. We discussed affiliation possibilities, Stanford and Caltech among them. He seemed, however, to favor Oregon State University, his undergraduate alma mater, to which he had already committed his scientific papers. If you haven’t already, you should check out the Pauling Papers at the OSU Valley Library Special Collections website. You will be impressed.

During the next years, I became President and Chairman of the Board of LPISM. We reorganized radically and survived many trials and tribulations. My essential second in command Steve Lawson and I visited many universities.

OSU, thanks to then President John Byrne, Development Director John Evey and Dean of Research Dick Scanlan, was our clear and undisputed choice.

And what a great choice it was! Here now, before us, 15 years later, is the Linus Pauling Science Center, dedicated to highest-quality research in scientific areas that would surely be of interest to my father. I’m sure, if he were here, he would have tears of joy in his eyes just as I do.

I want to thank OSU President Ed Ray, Dean Sherman Bloomer, LPI Director Balz Frei, architect Joe Collins, the many others in the system who have participated in making this possible, all the donors and the people of the great state of Oregon. I specifically thank the key major donors, Tammy Valley and Pat Reser, for allowing Linus Pauling’s name to be on this beautiful building. That is a very unusual act of generosity.

It will be a great future. Thank you all with my whole heart.

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.

Scenes from the Linus Pauling Science Center grand opening

(Video courtesy of Graham Kislingbury, Mid-Valley Newspapers)

We were there when ground was broken in September 2009.  Now, just over two years later, it was our great pleasure to attend the grand opening of the magnificent Linus Pauling Science Center, new home to the Linus Pauling Institute and to components of the Department of Chemistry. At 105,000 square feet, the Pauling Science Center is the largest academic building on the Oregon State University campus.  It is also the most expensive, costing $62.5 million to construct.

In addition to the video above, the Corvallis Gazette-Times did a great job of covering the opening (here’s one story focusing on the building and another on the event).  Below is a gallery of photographs that the blog took in documenting a memorable day.

Sidebar Omnibus

Detail from a painting by Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey, Wellcome Library

Several new links have crept into our sidebar in recent months, and we thought we’d take a moment to talk about what you’ll find if you give them a click.

The most obvious is the Linus Pauling Science Center construction webcam.  In late September 2009, we covered the ground breaking ceremony for $62.5 million building project, and what was at that time a big hole in the ground is now starting to bear some resemblance to its final form.  The Pauling Science Center, which is among the early tangible results of Oregon State University’s ongoing capital campaign, will house the Linus Pauling Institute as well as chemists from the College of Science.  At 105,000 square feet the Center will be the largest academic building on campus as well as a stunning illustration of just how far the Institute has come since its 1973 founding in a Menlo Park, California rental space.

Under the “Archives and Special Collections” sidebar header, we have added a link to the magnificent Wellcome Library blog, a collaborative venture that publishes new content virtually every day.  Based in London, the Wellcome Library is perhaps the world’s foremost repository for materials documenting the history of medicine.  Last year the Library embarked upon a major digitization effort that seeks to grant online access to a huge amount of the Wellcome’s vast collections.  Their blog – not unlike our own project – both highlights certain interesting components of their collections while simultaneously providing a glimpse behind the scenes of their various curatorial and digitization processes.  As a library and as a blog, they are an inspiration to us.

Lastly, we were delighted to find Sam Kean’s Blogging the Periodic Table site, hosted by the online magazine slate.com.  Kean is the author of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, and he’s been using his space on Slate to write about a different element each week day during the month of July.  While at first blush this may sound a bit dull, we have found that Kean’s writing is always entertaining and often enlightening.  Where else, for example, would one learn that Lewis and Clark thought to pack mercury-based laxative tablets with them as they set out to explore the new American West?

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.