Thomas M. Laue
Excellence in Research
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
College of Life Sciences and Agriculture
Photographed on August 9, 2004, in his back yard, Lee, N.H.
Twenty-years-old and chasing dual doctorates in biophysics and immunology, Tom Laue received a clear signal that it was time to slow down.
“I was walking across campus one night and just collapsed,” explains the UNH professor of biochemistry. “Turns out it was my heart. I knew I had to take it easy, so I stopped what I was doing and went to work for NASA, at the Jet Propulsion Lab Deep Space Facility.”
Laue says this without a trace of irony. At the suggestion that “NASA” and “low stress job” are not mutually compatible concepts, he laughs and then plunges into a description of his work there, thirty-odd years ago. The walls of his Rudman Hall office begin to echo with phrases that carry just a hint of science fiction, like “interplanetary quarantine,” “proton beam,” and “faulty electron gun.”
Laue wields these expressions as casually as a wrench from a tool chest in the garage, and it soon becomes clear that, to Laue, an electron gun is just a tool. It’s only that he draws from a much more impressive tool chest than the rest of us—the kind that attracts the attention of major pharmaceutical companies.
At UNH’s Center for the Advancement of Molecular Interaction Sciences (CAMIS), Laue leads a small group of people with a big mission—to develop and champion ultra-
sophisticated instrumentation that can be used to study the absolute properties of molecules, work that paves the way for the development of life-saving drugs.
“I call them ‘orphan instruments,’ ” says Laue, in a reference to the federal Orphan Drug Program that insures therapeutic drugs that treat relatively small groups of people are brought to market. “They are used widely—there is no substitute for what they can do—but their development requires expertise in mechanics, electronics, optics, and computer programming—all very expensive skills. There are less than 1,000 of these instruments in the world, so there is no business model that fits these requirements.”
It could be said that CAMIS evolved from Laue’s determination to preserve one such instrument, the analytical ultracentrifuge, to which he was introduced as a graduate student. He realized then that “what I really wanted to do was build equipment. Over the years, since 1948, I’ve become the latest in a lineage of people who have carried a torch for this silly old machine.”
Laue’s “torch” eventually became a business proposal, and today, the latest model of this “silly old machine” sits on the bench in the CAMIS lab. Thanks to Laue and his team, the ultracentrifuge is now capable of exquisitely sensitive molecular analysis through its ability to detect fluorescent molecular tags.
“We can tag the gene for a protein before it is expressed and track it through the cell cycle,” says Laue. “We break the cells apart at different stages to see what the protein is binding to; this knowledge is critical to learning how genes perform their functions.”
Eli Lily, Amgen, Merck—the list of companies interested in such information reads like a who’s who of the pharmaceutical industry, and for good reason. Data generated by this technology has refined the formulation of therapies to treat breast cancer and toxic shock syndrome, and the instrument’s potential is only beginning to be tapped.
While Laue admits he is more comfortable with the pace and culture of university life, he is adept at bringing the resources of both sectors together to advance a common goal. In 2002, he helped to establish the Biomolecular Interaction Technologies Center, through which leading pharmaceutical firms and the National Science Foundation jointly support areas of research that are critical to the development of safe and effective drugs.
For a man who spends most days thinking how the invisible and abstract world of molecules can be made tangible through advanced technology, Laue draws his inspiration from a relatively simple act. “I have a mechanical push mower and a pretty big lawn. I start out in the morning with a problem in mind—something my students brought up, or something like that—and then I start moving. If I’m lucky, the solution might come to me.”