LPI Researchers Take Aim at Lou Gehrig’s Disease

How did Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute become home to groundbreaking research on nerve cell degeneration? It all started with a letter from a small town New England attorney.

In the early 1980s, Orlo Williams, a lawyer in Springvale, Maine, sent a note to the institute asking about research on vitamin C and other micronutrients. Staff members answered and continued to send him the annual newsletter.

In subsequent years, Williams sent back small contributions, but the big surprise came in 1998. Williams’ estate included a $1.2 million unrestricted gift to LPI. His generosity spurred an additional $500,000 in contributions. With the Oregon State University Foundation, the institute created the Ava Helen Pauling Endowment, dedicated to the memory of the peace activist and inspiration for Linus Pauling, her husband and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The fund enabled LPI to hire Joseph Beckman whose expertise complements the institute’s ongoing research on micronutrients and health. Beckman focuses on oxidative stress, neurodegeneration and dietary factors in disease prevention. In addition to holding LPI’s Ava Helen Pauling Chair, he directs OSU’s Environmental Health Sciences Center and is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

LPI Director Balz Frei (holder of the Linus Pauling Institute Endowed Chair) notes that Beckman is one of the most frequently cited scientists in the world, in the top 250 in biology and biochemistry, according to the ISI Web of Science.

One of Beckman’s goals is to understand ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition in which nerve cells die, slowly robbing the body of the ability to move and breathe. About 5,600 Americans are diagnosed with it annually. Average life expectancy after diagnosis is three to five years. The cause is unknown, but Beckman’s research shows that oxidative stress and micronutrients play crucial roles. “There are five or six things going wrong all at once. And we don’t understand all the players,” he says.

While no cure exists, treatments can improve quality of life and extend survival. Beckman and his colleagues are developing new therapeutic agents, but clinical trials can take ten years or more. “Our interest is in testing alternative therapies, and micronutrients are one way that potential benefits, even if small, could be achieved more rapidly,” he says.

Beckman shares his knowledge with patients and their families through the ALS Association of Oregon. At LPI, he works with Frei, Maret Traber and other scientists to understand the roles of vitamins, zinc and other dietary constituents in reducing the risks of ALS, dementia and cardiovascular disease.

Beckman has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health to study oxidative stress and ALS. However, those funds are subject to annual federal appropriations. The endowment provides crucial “seed money,” he explains. “It’s important for letting us have flexibility, trying new approaches that cannot yet be funded by traditional grants.”