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.
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.
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.”
Bringing the power of a national lab to fit inside a basement
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.
Talking about a revolution
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.”
The reward in giving
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.