CORVALLIS, Ore. - An internationally recognized expert on the role of antioxidants in atherosclerosis and heart disease has been named as the new director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

Balz Frei, an associate professor of medicine and biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine, said he will use this position to aggressively expand the institute's faculty, funding, facilities and research.

He will hold the Linus Pauling Institute Endowed Chair.

"Our goal is to make the Linus Pauling Institute a world-recognized leader in the study of vitamins and phytochemicals, which are natural constituents of plants," Frei said, "and their role in maintaining optimal health and preventing disease."

Frei will replace interim director Donald Reed, an OSU distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics, as he builds upon the institute's core group of scientists, existing research programs and $3 million endowment.

The institute, which was founded by the late two-time Nobel laureate and OSU alumnus Linus Pauling, completed its move to OSU in 1996. Pauling was a pioneer and early advocate for the study of micronutrients in disease processes, long before such concepts gained wider scientific acceptance.

"The institute will be a living memorial to the scientific career, innovation and accomplishments of Linus Pauling," Frei said.

Richard Scanlan, OSU dean of research, said that "Frei is viewed as one of the leading young scientists in the world in the fields of biochemistry, nutrition, human health and degenerative disease."

"We're confident he will attract top faculty and students to help make the Pauling Institute a recognized center of excellence," Scanlan said.

Scanlan said Frei was selected for the position after an extended search that attracted interest from some of the leading scientists in the nation.

Frei received his doctorate from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, did postdoctoral studies at the University of California in Berkeley, and has served on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health.

He is the editor of the book "Natural Antioxidants in Human Health and Disease," a topic that has dominated much of his research career - especially concerning the role of vitamin C.

"There is increasing evidence that several degenerative diseases, including heart disease and cancer, are caused in part by oxidative stress," Frei said. "This is a condition in which biological molecules are damaged by oxidation and their normal biological function is lost or impaired."

Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables, such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, and flavonoids in wine and tea, may lower the risk of these diseases, scientists now believe. But exactly how is poorly understood.

A key goal of the Pauling Institute and his own research, Frei said, will be to determine the basic biochemical mechanisms that may allow certain vitamins and phytochemicals to serve as a protection, or possibly even therapy, for degenerative diseases - which, by far, are the leading cause of death in the western world.

"While many vitamins and phytochemicals are beneficial, other constituents of food may be harmful if consumed in excess," Frei said. "For instance, excessive iron intake may be a risk factor for certain types of cancer and heart disease. Institute scientists will try to determine the role of iron and other trace metal ions in these diseases."

Such a fundamental understanding, Frei said, would set the stage for the type of human clinical trials that could ultimately prove the value of specific nutrients in disease prevention or treatment.

Other goals with the Pauling Institute at OSU, he said, include:

- Enhancement of research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and other sources;

- Expansion of institute faculty to eight to 10 principal investigators, conducting in vitro, animal and human studies in biochemistry, cellular biology and molecular biology;

- Develop collaboration of institute researchers with other OSU faculty, departments and centers, and other institutions;

- Enhanced student education through research, scholarships, fellowships and teaching;

- Sponsorship of professional seminars and conferences;

- Construction of a facility and laboratories for the specialized needs of the institute.

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Richard Scanlan, 541-737-0663