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Research Newsletter-Spring/Summer 2013

Balz Frei, Ph.D.

FROM THE DIRECTOR

Balz Frei, Ph.D.
LPI Director and Endowed Chair
Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics


It is my pleasure to announce three recent honors awarded to LPI faculty member Dr. Joseph Beckman. Dr. Beckman joined the Linus Pauling Institute in 2001 as Ava Helen Pauling Chair and professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Since 2002, he also has served as Director of OSU’s Environmental Health Sciences Center, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health and supports research on environmental causes of disease. Last year, Dr. Beckman was bestowed another endowed position in the Institute, the Margaret W. Terrill Research Innovator Faculty Scholar Award, which supports a faculty member of the Linus Pauling Institute “specializing in innovative research projects that are relevant to the mission of the Institute.” In addition, in November 2012, the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon Health & Science University presented the Discovery Award to Dr. Beckman “for distinguished achievements in neuroscience.” And finally, just this April, Dr. Beckman was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor, the highest honor OSU gives to its faculty.

Photo of Joe Beckman

All of these awards recognize Dr. Beckman’s outstanding contributions to our understanding of the causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This dreadful disease is caused by the unexplained death of motor neurons that control the movement of all voluntary muscles in our body. We have only about 500,000 motor neurons at birth, and they cannot be replaced once they have been lost. The long-term goals of Dr. Beckman’s work are to elucidate the underlying mechanisms of ALS and subsequently identify dietary compounds and design therapeutic drugs that specifically target these mechanisms.

Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Beckman’s group published a ground-breaking study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study showed that oxidative modification—“nitration”—of a single amino acid residue of a specific protein in motor neurons causes these cells to die. Dr. Beckman said, “It was difficult to believe that adding one nitro group to one protein will make it toxic enough to kill a motor neuron. But nitration of HSP90 (Heat Shock Protein 90) was shown to activate a pro-inflammatory receptor. This begins a dangerous spiral that eventually leads to the death of motor neurons.” Identifying this specific mechanism now opens the door to developing new strategies that prevent nitration of HSP90 and thus could prevent motor neuron death and ALS. Through the common link of inflammation, Dr. Beckman’s discovery may also relate to other health problems, such as heart disease, chronic pain, and spinal cord injury.

Photo of Maret Traber

Another LPI faculty also recently received a prestigious award. Dr. Maret Traber, the Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Micronutrient Research in the Institute and professor in OSU’s School of Biological & Population Health Sciences, was bestowed the 2013 Pfizer Consumer Healthcare Nutritional Sciences Award by the American Society for Nutrition. According to ASN, this award is given for contributions “of contemporary significance to the understanding of human nutrition.”

Dr. Traber’s pioneering research on vitamin E caused a paradigm shift in our understanding of the mechanisms regulating vitamin E bioavailability and metabolism in humans. Much of her work has focused on a protein in the liver, the alpha-tocopherol transfer protein, which plays a critical role in maintaining adequate vitamin E levels in the body. Using zebrafish as an experimental model, Dr. Traber recently found that this protein is also necessary in the developing brain, likely to deliver vitamin E as the brain is forming. This discovery may have important implications for determining human vitamin E requirements during conception and early pregnancy.

Dr. Traber has served on the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine Panel on Dietary Antioxidants and Related Compounds, which established the most recent recommended dietary allowances and other dietary reference intakes for vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids.

Photo of Jana Zvibleman

Finally, I’m delighted to introduce our first Communications Officer in the Linus Pauling Institute. This position was inspired and funded by one of our most loyal and generous supporters, whose crucial gift will help LPI communicate our research discoveries to enable everyone to achieve optimum health. Our new colleague Jana Zvibleman is a long-time editor and writer who served as the Public Relations Officer in OSU’s Research Office for the past 14 years. I’m already enjoying how her creative ideas and unique perspectives are helping us refresh and expand our outreach and communications efforts. I’m sure you will be interested in her new LPI blog and other strategies that she is developing to keep you informed about the activities of our researchers and how their work can make a difference in your life. If we don’t yet have your email address and you would like to get occasional, timely communications, please send it to Jana at jana.zvibleman@oregonstate.edu.

Thank you, and enjoy the Newsletter!


Last updated May 2013