VAI scientist obtains $9.6M Transformative Research Award

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Dr. J. Andrew Pospisilik. Courtesy Van Andel Institute

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted Dr. J. Andrew Pospisilik, of Van Andel Institute (VAI), and Dr. Joseph Nadeau, of Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI), a five-year, $9.6 million Transformative Research Award for their work.

Pospisilik and Nadeu’s research explores the questions, “If you were born multiple times under the exact same circumstances, would you turn out to be the same person each time? And if not, what implications could the differences have for your health?”

Researchers believe these questions could fundamentally transform the current definition of health. By exploring “probabilistic” variation and how it may influence health before birth and through life, it is believed these factors could provide insight into new methods for fighting cancer, obesity and other conditions.

Through this study, the team hopes to pinpoint new sets of disease-related genes and also successfully identify subtypes of disease, as well as gain a better understanding of how genetics and epigenetics impact health.

“In some ways, our health is like a game of dice in which chance or variation plays a major role. We want to understand exactly how variation defines our health and how we can leverage it to combat disease,” Pospisilik said. “As scientists, we’re trained to see variation as error, but we believe that it is actually a necessary and vital biological regulatory process. We are grateful to the National Institutes of Health Common Fund for its support of this exciting project. These high-risk, high-reward funding mechanisms from the NIH are a rare opportunity to peek into the unknown — to remind ourselves how little we actually know.”

The Transformative Research Award is part of NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program to support risky projects that have the potential to change the trajectory of scientific research and paradigms.

Through the help of work done by fellow researchers at VAI and MMCRI, Pospisilik and Nadeau now have access to advances in technique and technology to further analyze and identify molecular regulators in variation derived from genetic and epigenetic factors.

“Our genes and our environment are just 50% of what makes us who we are,” Nadeau said. “We want to understand what the other 50% is so that someday we may be able to predict whether early medical interventions or lifestyle changes could improve our chances of a healthy life.”

Other teams that will provide or have provided tools in the advancement of this project include VAI’s research team led by Dr. Tim Triche Jr. and MMCRI’s Dr. Christine Lary, among others from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Singapore’s Institute for Clinical Sciences and University of Auckland.

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