$10 million gift will build first-of-its-kind X-ray facility at ASU

Above: The ASU Biodesign Institute will be home to the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Lab. (Photo and story by Carly Henry/Cronkte News) Business News | 18 Apr |

Through their generous philanthropic investments, Leo and Annette Beus have already made a lasting Arizona State University impact. They have changed the face of the downtown landscape with the addition of the Beus Center for Law and Society, supported Sun Devil Athletics and provided numerous scholarships to increase student access to a college education.

Now, with a new $10-million-dollar investment, the Beus’ want to help shape the future of medicine.  Their ever-deepening ASU commitment will soon establish the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Lab, now under construction at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. The CXFEL laser will be a first-of-its-kind, X-ray technology with potential applications in medicine, renewable energy (for the “green” economy), the computer industry and beyond. 

“Leo and Annette Beus have become more than visionary benefactors critical to the mission and success of ASU; they represent the very best of our ASU family,” said ASU President Michael Crow in announcing the gift. “With this most recent investment, they will spur the development of a home-grown ASU X-ray technology that has vast potential to make a life-altering, worldwide impact.”

For the Beus,’ the opportunity to contribute to the future well-being of the community was a perfect fit for their philanthropic spirit.

“If you combine what you really think is sophisticated applied science and facilities with some of the most dedicated and smartest people you can ever imagine, it’s about as good as it gets,” said Leo Beus, who has practiced law in the Valley for more than 40 years at Beus Gilbert PLLC.

The Beus’ believe this new ASU X-ray technology will lead to speeding up the costly drug discovery process and better drugs with fewer side effects. 

“You know, every time that Leo and I have visited the Biodesign Institute, we have found something fascinating,” said Annette Beus. “And this laser is fascinating to me because I personally know of so many friends and family members who are affected by the bad side effects of drugs that they have to take to support their lives. The future is wide open with the good that can come from this laser.”

Looking even deeper beneath the surface

Ever since their original discovery almost 125 years ago, X-rays have completely transformed medicine and the way we see the human body, become modern-day national security sentinels at airports, and even captivated moviegoers’ imaginations by bestowing awesome powers to their superheroes.

Despite changing the shape of medicine throughout the 20th century, X-ray technology only changed incrementally along the way. But there is a new excitement with 21st century advances in applied physics to make a new leap in X-ray technology to benefit medical care. 

“In many ways, the advancement of medicine has paralleled that of X-rays, going from the 19th century of basically describing diseases at the surface level, such as symptoms like “the cholic” or “the flu” to recognizing patterns in the cells and tissues that suggest different causes of disease. Now, in the 21st century, we are looking even deeper, within the cells at the molecules themselves, and finally understanding the molecular root causes of disease,” said Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, the Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine at ASU. 

ASU is heavily involved in research projects to understand these molecular root causes of disease, including how the complete collection of proteins within our bodies, called the proteome, work.

“Proteins are the engines of biology,” explains LaBaer. “When they go wrong, we get disease.  We need to understand how they function to make better drugs to repair the proteins or find out how they go wrong.”

But for the majority of proteins (an estimated 100,000 in the human body), how they work is not known. Current x-rays are too slow and disorganized to get the molecular details scientists need, limiting them to taking snapshots of the easiest proteins to study.

World’s most brilliant x-rays

Fast forward to the 21st century, when, in just the last decade, it’s been ASU’s scientific talent who have been at the forefront of adapting the world’s most powerful X-rays to capture molecules in motion – making the fastest movies on Earth leading to a better understanding of biology and medicine.

These X-rays are obtained by very fast pulses of light to string together images – like super slow motion – of a movie of the molecules to watch them in motion.   

But to peer ever smaller into the very heart of disease has required scientists to design ever bigger and more powerful X-rays using the “big guns of physics,” giant, billion-dollar, atom-smashing particle accelerators called a X-ray free-electron laser, or XFEL. 

ASU scientists including Regents’ Professors John Spence, and Petra Fromme, were part of a worldwide team to develop the first theory and methodology harnessing the XFEL.

“Proteins are in constant motion, carrying out the reactions that make life possible,” said Spence. “We want to see life in motion, but these movements happen on a scale too small and too fast to be seen with microscopes. They can only be seen with XFELs.”

Since then, the ASU scientific team has made a series of remarkable discoveries published in the world’s top scientific journals. They have solved protein structures that help us see and breathe, better understand diseases like diabetes and hypertension, and made the first movies to watch antibiotics in action. 

“These movies demonstrate why drugs sometimes do not hit target proteins. They also show  how plant photosynthesis creates clean energy,” said Fromme, director of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the BioXFEL program at ASU. 

Before XFELs, it once took Fromme a dozen years to solve the structure of a key photosynthesis protein.  It’s been a lifelong ambition of Fromme to crack the code of how plants use sunlight for food to improve renewable energy applications. 

A crowded road

But access to the big XFELs is limited and expensive. Currently, there are only five XFEL facilities worldwide, resulting in a traffic jam of scientific demand that is slowing down potential research.

After a chance meeting on a flight to San Diego, Fromme explained to Leo Beus her radical new plan and develop a compact XFEL that would lead to a new  X-ray revolution.

“After I got off the airplane, I shot a note to President Crow saying I met one of the most delightful, phenomenal, fantastic, wonderful human beings I have ever met,” said Beus. “And her name was Petra Fromme. She is one of the head scientists on this project.”

Bringing the power of a national lab to fit inside a basement

The Beus’ gift will enable ASU to pull off a seemingly unbelievable scientific magic trick – to shrink the power and cost of a 2-mile-long “big gun” XFEL lab into a small lab. Or in this case, the one-of-a-kind vault that will house the world’s first compact X-ray laser machine within the Biodesign Institute’s C building.

Fromme wooed physicist William Graves from MIT, who is the master designer and builder of this new compact XFEL (CXFEL), to ASU for the program. With the Beus’ gift, the laser is scheduled to be completed later this year, with the “first light” of turning on the machine and experiments beginning in 2020. 

Talking about a revolution

Locally, the ASU team is already collaborating with the Mayo Clinic to adapt the technology for medical imaging and semiconductor companies for quality control at their fabrication plants. And, in a series of CXFEL workshops ASU has hosted, scientists are chomping at the bit, and emerged wide-eyed and eager to collaborate with ASU from their various institutions around the world.

This instrument at ASU has the potential to be a force-multiplier for discovery. It may one day give scientists and medical researchers throughout academia, industry and medicine access to brilliant X-rays in their own laboratories, accelerating and broadening scientific discovery like never before. 

“Right now, if you want to take a drug from beginning to end it takes years,” said Beus. “And it costs hundreds of millions of dollars in most cases. It can be accelerated. I think it [CXFEL] can change and revolutionize the lives of people, pain, malignancy, maybe even Alzheimer’s if you can figure out the proteins in the brain.”

“And if other research scientists can have the benefit of what ASU is doing, and the technology can get spread out, it will revolutionize medicine.”

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