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Through their generous philanthropic investments, Leo and Annette Beus have already made a lasting ASU impact. They have changed the face of the downtown Phoenix 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 investment, the Beuses want to help shape the future of medicine and improve the lives of others. Their ever-deepening ASU commitment will enable the completion of the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Lab, now under construction at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. The CXFEL will be a first-of-its-kind X-ray technology with potential applications in medicine, the “green” renewable energy 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 brilliant, home-grown ASU X-ray technology that has a vast potential for life-altering, worldwide impact.”
For the Beuses, 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.
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
The Beuses are hopeful 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,” Annette Beus said. “And this laser is fascinating to me because I personally know of so many friends and family members who are affected by the bad effects of drugs that they have to take to support their lives. I just think the future is wide open with the good that can come from this laser.”
Ever since their original discovery almost 125 years ago, X-rays have 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 superheroes.
Despite changing the shape of medicine throughout the 20th century, X-ray technology changed only 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," said Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, the Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine at ASU. "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.”
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,” LaBaer explained. “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.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, when, in just the last decade, it has been ASU’s scientific talent at the forefront of adapting the world’s most powerful X-rays to capture molecules in motion — making the fastest movies on Earth to better understand 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 an X-ray free-electron laser, or XFEL.
ASU scientists including Regents’ Professors John Spence, the Richard Snell Professor of Physics, and Petra Fromme, the Paul V. Galvin Professor of Molecular Sciences, were part of a worldwide team to develop the first theory and methodology to peer ever deeper into the biological world using XFELs in 2010.
“Proteins are in constant motion, carrying out the reactions that make life possible,” Spence said. “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 can reveal biological reactions in unprecedented detail and demonstrate why drugs sometimes do not hit target proteins and how plant photosynthesis creates clean energy,” said Fromme, director of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the BioXFEL program at ASU and part of the School for Molecular Sciences.
Before XFELs, it once took Fromme a dozen years to solve the structure of a key photosynthesis protein. It has been a lifelong ambition of Fromme to crack the code of how plants use sunlight for food to improve renewable energy applications.
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.
In fact, a new giant X-ray facility completed in 2017, called the European XFEL, is 2.1 miles long and officially opened last summer in Hamburg, Germany. It took the combined effort of 11 countries, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and disrupted city blocks and uprooted houses during its decade-long construction.
Fromme and her team were among the first to use the European XFEL facility, and although she has been excited with XFEL science’s progress, she has been equally frustrated with the complicated logistics and costs to perform the science.
Then, after a chance meeting on a flight to San Diego, she explained to Leo Beus her radical new plan. On that flight, Beus learned that Fromme wanted to start an X-ray revolution all over again.
“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,” Beus said. “And her name was Petra Fromme. She is one of the head scientists on this project.”
The Beuses’ 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 newest building C, just completed last fall.
Fromme wooed physicist William Graves, the master designer and builder of this new compact XFEL (CXFEL), from MIT 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.
“The whole laser beamline is just 30 feet long, but it will deliver a performance similar to the big XFELs,” Graves said. “Because we came up with these ideas and ASU had the vision to execute this project, we’re going to be the first ones to develop the CXFEL. We think they will spread throughout the world after we demonstrate this first one.”
ASU’s aim is to create a new paradigm — where the CXFEL will offer cutting-edge performance, wide availability and ease of use in hospital or industrial settings — and test new ideas at their ASU Biodesign home without the barriers of schedule, travel and expenses of the big XFEL facilities.
Locally, the ASU team is already collaborating with medical institutions 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 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,” Leo Beus said. “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.”
During their 40-plus years of living in the Valley, the Beuses have witnessed ASU grow into a major metropolitan research university with a charter responsible for the well-being of the community it serves.
“The reward in giving to ASU comes back time and time again,” Annette Beus said. “And it’s so great to be able to see what they do. They want to bless the lives of other people and improve the lives of other people.”
There is a lasting affinity for ASU that resonates deep within their hearts.
“Even though neither one of us went to ASU, it’s become our life,” Annette Beus said. “It’s become where we look forward to getting together and we’ve learned so much. It’s just amazing what this institution is doing for the state of Arizona.”
Top photo: Annette and Leo Beus want to help shape the future of medicine and improve the lives of others. Their ever-deepening ASU commitment will enable the completion of the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Lab, now under construction at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.