That’s Very Funny, Dr. Laine
How one LSU researcher made some “funny” discoveries in his lab, ended up with 31 U.S. patents, a possible cure for cancer and is being inducted as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors next week.
Roger Laine is a professor of biochemistry in the departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry at LSU. His office, on the fifth floor of Choppin Hall, is, well, a bit of a mess. Empty bottles and Styrofoam cups and coffee mugs and pile upon pile of paper. He reclines behind his desk, lustfully chewing on an unlit cigar, recounting Ole jokes—if you’re up for that sort of thing, which you might be if you’re a Scandinavian from Northern Minnesota, like Laine.
How did you grow up?
As a kid, I lived on a farm. My father had 3,000 chickens, we had some cattle—and feeder pigs in the spring. Both sets of grandparents were dairy farmers, born in Finland, Sweden and Norway, immigrants to Minnesota.
But you’ve been at LSU for quite some time.
Since 1983, when I came as a chair of the biochemistry department. I did that for five years, but you know—what I love is research. What makes me happy is discovery, and administrators only listen to people’s problems. If I wanted to be a psychiatrist, I would have gone to medical school, but I didn’t want to do that. To me, MDs are technicians—they just do the same thing every day. I didn’t want that path. But I try to do everything. I have one mantra—surround yourself with people who are better than you if you want to get ahead.
When I came here, the whole department only had 300,000 dollars in grants, total. And that’s what I had myself, at the time. So, I hired seven new faculty over the first three years, and all of those faculty came in and got grants. One guy who was here already didn’t get tenure. He actually offered to blow up my scientific equipment with dynamite when I informed him. Today that would have been a terrorist threat, but I just told the dean, ‘If you hear an explosion, you’ll know what it is.’
After five years, our whole department was buzzing in research. We had 12 research-active faculty and $2.8 million in grants. And I recruited graduate students very heavily. The department went from 12 to 35 PhD students. I did it right—but I didn’t like the job.
Then I got an offer from a biotech company in California. I had a couple of NIH grants and six students, and I couldn’t just leave them. So I asked the Provost, ‘Can I take a 75% leave of absence? I’ll keep 25% for research; I’ll drop the chair, I’ll drop teaching, and I’ll do this for a couple of years.’ So, I moved out to San Francisco. I lived there for two years and commuted back here one week per month. After two years, I had to make a decision. They wanted to me to stay on [at the company]—I’d hired 25 PhDs and 10 technical people, and when the company went public for $150 million, it was the most fun I’d ever had in my whole life. I had an unlimited credit card that paid for my apartment, they paid for my car, I traveled everywhere. But now I was an administrator with 40 people working for me. I had to make a choice—what kind of lifestyle I wanted. So, I decided to come back to LSU. First of all, I had kind of promised I would come back. And number two, I had some discoveries in my lab that I wanted to patent. I started developing some technology that could be commercialized. That was my transition to the banausic view of life—you may as well make money while you’re having fun.
I hear you’re working on four biotech companies.
Yes, and at least three of those could have a blockbuster drug right now, but if one of those hits and we go public, or I make a lot more money, I don’t think I’ll change what I’m doing. I love what I’m doing.
I have a cancer drug that I’m developing, and another substance related to that. That substance has been through a phase-one clinical trial in humans and it was remarkably effective. We’re in the middle of trying to do a dog trial at the LSU vet school. The FDA gave us permission to make our own material in the LAETC lab for the dog trial, but for humans we have to spend $1 million to manufacture enough drug for the phase-two trial. We have a phase two trial ready to go.
Would this drug work for any kind of cancer?
Yeah, probably. And a phase-one trial is a safety trial—it can only be done on stage-four patients who have no hope, and on 15 humans with different kinds of cancer there was 33% effectivity and one cured. That’s unheard of in a safety trial.
The drug is a polysaccharide, and you inject it in an IV. There’s a receptor for the drug that occurs on all tumors. Actually, there’s a long history of using polysaccharides on cancer. The literature goes back to 1868. My guess is that if we get this cancer drug going, it’s a $4 billion drug.
You also have a dozen patents related to insect repellents?
I started working on a bunch of them years ago. We discovered that the grapefruit flavor nootkatone is a very good insect repellent. It really works, but it’s too expensive. With Dr. [William] Crowe [also at the LSU Department of Chemistry], we devised a new synthetic method—one of his students, Anne Sauer, did it for a thesis, working with my group. Now I’m trying to get a company to license it. We’ve done the bench scale in my own lab, but we need a pilot plant to take synthesis to the ton level. We need a company to put it out there.
I keep myself happy with all the fun that goes on with doing the research. And I have made some money, so I don’t need anything. It’s not like I’m hungry. Of course, it would be fun to have extra money to do stuff with, but I don’t know what I would buy...
Anyway, the insect project has been fun. I worked on that for several years in a collaboration with Dr. [Gregg] Henderson [now retired] in [LSU] Entomology. That started because one day one of his students came down with a piece of paper with a line drawn down it and he was counting termites. As he was counting, he said, ‘All the termites are coming out and walking up the ball point pen line.’ So, I said, ‘What kind of pen is that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ So I said, ‘Go down and draw a line with all your pens and throw a bunch of termites on there and see which line they’re drawn to.’ He came back with one pen and it was some kind of BIC pen. I said, ‘Go to Office Depot and buy 200 of these.’ Then, ‘Squeeze all the ink out of those and we’re going to put it on a chromatography column and separate all of the different compounds.’ We had 80 tubes that were fractions from that column, and then we made 80 spots on a piece of paper and we put some termites on there and they all walked over to one spot. The compound we discovered was 2-phenoxyethanol. The student was really excited because we had enough data for a patent and a paper in about one week because the compound could be used to attract termites to toxic baits.
Most of the discoveries that we have found in the lab, where we’ve had all this fun, has been from chance. Just from noticing something that was different and then following up. The best thing I can hear a student say in the lab is, ‘That’s funny… This result doesn’t look right.’
I hear your focus is on glycobiology, the study of the biological function of complex saccharides, and that’s related to your work on insects. Can you explain?
Saccharides are sugars, and after Katrina, when a Professor Sayed Muniruzzaman from Xavier was flooded out, he brought a series of rare sugars to do a collaboration in my lab. We found another 12 rare sugars on the shelves. I said to my student, ‘Why don’t you put some of these sugars on pieces of filter paper and let termites feed on them and see if any of them are toxic?’ We had 27 sugars, and when we got done, we’d discovered that seven of them were toxic to termites. So, we published a few papers on that and patented some of those things. And then one day one of my undergraduate students said, ‘That’s funny, these termites that are eating 2-phosphoinositol, their antennae look like they’re burnt.’ They looked shorter and were brown on the end. We followed up and found that at a certain concentration, the termites’ antennae, the end bead would turn black. A few days later, it would fall off, and then the next bead. Nine days later, no antennae. Termites don’t have eyes, so they’re blind. The only way they sense what’s around them is with these antennae, which are chemical sensors. Once they’re gone, they die. Why it’s just the antennae, we still don’t know. All that from a student saying, ‘That’s funny...’
So, we started working with 2-phosphoinositol. One day I looked at the bottle, and the salt version of the compound was cyclohexylamine. This was strange because usually you just have a sodium or something as a salt. I had another undergrad who came in the lab and told him to go in my refrigerator and see if I have any other sugars that have a cyclohexylamine phosphate. He found a three-carbon sugar and I said, ‘Go feed that to the termites.’ And their antennae fell off! So, it wasn’t the sugar—it was the cyclohexylamine. We’d found a new termiticide just by accident. This also resulted in a patent and publication.
One more funny thing—we wanted to test the cyclohexylamine on fire ants because fire ants just got to Japan, and the Japanese are petrified. Anyway, there was a guy who had a green house in New Orleans, and he had a grass in his greenhouse called vetiver grass and he’d put some of that out and it was not being eaten by insects. So, he brought it to Dr. Henderson’s lab and asked why. Dr. Henderson brought it to me, because Henderson’s a behaviorist. So, I looked it up, and 3,000 compounds had been extracted from the oil in the lab in other laboratories. One of the main compounds was vetivone, an insect repellent. I didn’t want to work with vetivone, because it can’t be patented, but we found 15 compounds in a catalog that had some resemblance to it, so we ordered all these and the strongest was nootkatone [named after a tree that is highly insect repellent]. We tested nootkatone on fire ants, and it repels and kills them, and we also wanted to test cyclohexylamine. Now, you can’t feed fire ants paper, so we started giving them little slices of Vienna sausages [with cyclohexylamine], but the sausages were getting moldy after a couple days, so that wasn’t good. Then I was home one day, and I have a small dog named Fuji—he’s old, so I’d started buying him soft food. I brought some of his food to the lab and when we tested the cyclohexylamine on the dog food, the student said, ‘That’s funny... The controls with just the dog food died.’ It was something in the dog food! We subsequently found a substance in the dog food that is poisonous to fire ants.
So you’re big in Japan now?
Not yet! [laughs].
The complete list of NAI Fellows is available on the NAI website, and if you want more information about Roger Line, you can read the official LSU announcement or visit his website, where his 31 U.S. patents are listed.
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development