VAI stages Origins of Cancer symposium


A crowd of fans surrounds Dr. James Watson during a VAI Origins of Cancer symposium. Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962 for his part in the discovery of the DNA double helix structure. Courtesy VAI

International cancer experts are slated to look “Beyond the Tumor Cell” at the Van Andel Institute’s Origins of Cancer symposium downtown this week.

VAI, the medical research and educational institute in Grand Rapids, said last week that it’s hosting the fifth annual Origins of Cancer symposium this Friday from 7 a.m.-4 p.m., focusing on the factors that influence the development of cancer.

More than 300 research professionals, students and educators are expected to attend the event.

Dr. Steven Triezenberg, dean of the graduate school at VAI, said the Origins of Cancer symposium is the latest in a series of conferences the institute has hosted to bring in a panel of experts to speak about a particular aspect of cancer biology.

“It is good for our scientists to get brought up to date on the latest in cancer research; it is good for the community around us, for the faculty and students from colleges and universities in the area around us to hear these experts as well, and it is a way for us to showcase to those visitors the quality of science and education that goes on here in Grand Rapids,” Trizenberg said.

“The feedback from the conferences themselves is always very positive. The scientists here become very energized by hearing these talks, the people from the surrounding educational communities . . . really enjoy the opportunity to have a very concentrated dose of the latest in cancer biology research and our visitors come away pretty impressed.”


The event features medical and scientific experts discussing the theme “Beyond the Tumor Cell,” which focuses on systemic issues impacting the growth and progression of cancer, such as inflammation and immune evasion in cancer and the tumor micro-environment.

Taking an in-depth look at the tumor cell, the eight symposium speakers will cover various topics: inflammatory mediators, immune modulation and cancer progression; tumor-derived micro-vesicles: biology and clinical potential; and gut microbes and the cancer macro-environment.


The speakers come from across the country: Dr. Raymond DuBois, The Biodesign Insitute at Arizona State University; Dr. Susan Erdman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Dr. Drew Pardoll, The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at John Hopkins School of Medicine; Dr. Crislyn D’Souza-Schorey, University of Notre Dame; and Dr. Johanna Joyce, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Grad-student production

The Origins of Cancer event was organized by Drew Howard, Eric Nollet and Dr. Nikki Thellman, graduate students at the Van Andel Institute Graduate School, as a course in scientific event planning.

“I think the opportunity for us to let graduate students function as the organizers of this meeting reflects an important part of the philosophy of our graduate school,” Trizenberg said. “We see the Ph.D. students as our future colleagues, as the people who will be this discipline in the future.”

Dr. Nick Duesbery, associate professor in the Center for Cancer and Cell Biology and head of the Laboratory of Cancer and Developmental Cell Biology, said the realization of the potential to turn the conference into a training opportunity for senior graduate students occurred following the first event.

“The idea would be that we would allow graduates to participate in all aspects of conference organization from deciding who to invite to give a talk, to organizing all the media, publicity that is associated with the event,” Duesbery said. “The graduate students were really given a hands-on or leadership role in organizing.”

Duesbery said the event not only provides graduate students an opportunity to network with international research leaders, but it also exposes people to the latest and most innovative research developing in cancer research.

“The people we are selecting, or have been selected to speak, are really representative of the elite in terms of scientists in the country, and it is really interesting that graduate students have had an indirect or an unintended benefit in being able to attract some of these individuals,” Duesbery said. “Through the graduate students, I think we have been able to recruit a better-caliber speaker.”

The Origins of Cancer symposium was established in 2009 to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s "The Origin of Species." 

“As well as promoting the institute, I think this gives a lot of local businesses a wonderful opportunity to be promoted on that national or international level as well,” Duesbery said. “There are a lot of life sciences related or cancer-related organizations who have stepped forward to sponsor the program.”

Registration for the event costs $100 for non-students and $50 for students.


Founded in 1996, the VAI includes the Van Andel Education Institute and the Van Andel Research Institute.

The educational aspect of the institute includes providing science education and preparation for science or science-related professions, while the research institute employs more than 200 researchers conducting biomedical research focused on cellular, genetic and molecular aspects of cancer.

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