Vital Signs: Partnerships create thriving sector for biomedical research


Grand Rapids is a thriving city filled with small businesses, entrepreneurs, world-class educational institutions and a vibrant biomedical research community.

In many ways, our city is a success story — we regularly top a variety of ratings, from being named one of the top 25 Best Performing Cities to taking the title for Best Beer Town. This success is no accident; it’s the result of a community vision for growth and a commitment to collaborate across sectors to revitalize West Michigan.

It’s gratifying to see how the landscape has changed over the past 20 years. When Van Andel Institute was founded in 1996, the infrastructure to support innovative biomedical research wasn’t in place. There was a sense, however, that if the VAI was built and we brought along the right people, we could build a biomedical research community that could reinvigorate the city and usher in a new era of advancements in human health.

Today, the institute sits atop the hill on Michigan Avenue at the center of a dynamic human health corridor known as the Medical Mile. The Medical Mile is the site of world-class clinical care, biomedical research and powerful collaborative partnerships between multiple organizations — it is also a source of economic growth and vitality for the city on the Grand.

As we celebrate the new dawn of 2016 and embrace the potential and energy of a New Year, I would like to share some of Van Andel Institute’s strategic partnerships that continue to shape our city’s biomedical research efforts and enhance West Michigan’s potential for impact. Our approach is two-fold: We will continue to deepen our collaborations with valued partners in health care and higher education here in Grand Rapids, while also expanding national and international relationships that ultimately will benefit our community.

In the coming years, you will hear more about an exciting field of research called epigenetics — the study of how the information in DNA is used and how modifications of DNA influence which genes are turned on or off in a cell. In the world of technology, DNA can be likened to the hardware in a computer while epigenetics functions as the software that tells the hardware what to do. Epigenetic changes can sometimes result in cancer or other diseases — but these changes can also be altered with epigenetic therapies.

The Van Andel Research Institute Stand Up To Cancer — VARI-SU2C — Epigenetics Dream Team holds great promise for the future. The team, led by VARI’s research director, Dr. Peter Jones, and Dr. Stephen Baylin, who holds a joint appointment at VARI and Johns Hopkins University, focuses on moving promising epigenetic therapies for cancer into clinical trials. This partnership ushers in a new era in epigenetic cancer research for the institute and helps further establish Grand Rapids as a worldwide hub for epigenetics research.

Parkinson’s disease also is an important area of focus for the institute. In order to accelerate the pace of discovery, the institute has developed partnerships with international organizations focused on a variety of Parkinson’s disease issues. One such partnership is with the Cure Parkinson’s Trust, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that empowers people with Parkinson’s to advocate for increasing the effectiveness of clinical trials. The trust worked directly with the institute to host Rallying to the Challenge, an event held in parallel with the Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease symposium in 2014 and 2015. 

Grand Challenges is one of the largest Parkinson’s-focused scientific events in Michigan, and it provides a unique opportunity for scientists, clinicians, patients and caregivers to learn from one another and share information. Rallying to the Challenge is a patient-focused event that empowers people with Parkinson’s and caregivers to play an active role in the future of Parkinson’s research and the efficiency of the clinical trial process.

When the king and queen of the Netherlands visited Grand Rapids last summer, it generated quite a bit of buzz for the city. In conjunction with the royal visit, the VAI announced it was pursuing a collaboration with Netherlands-based ParkinsonNet, which will give people with Parkinson’s in West Michigan a powerful new resource.

ParkinsonNet connects more than 3,000 medical and care professionals to people with Parkinson’s across the Netherlands, via the Internet or in person, making it easier for patients to get the expert care they need. Bringing this unique organization to Michigan means people with Parkinson’s in communities without large medical centers will have a better opportunity to connect with neurologists and specialists throughout the state.

As Grand Rapids continues to develop the Medical Mile, welcoming new biomedical research initiatives and clinical facilities, Van Andel Institute will continue to embrace and nurture the spirit of collaboration. Indeed, it is the only way forward. The future of human health does not rest with a singular entity; it depends on the nimble partnerships of many, bound by a shared responsibility and unified sense of purpose.

David Van Andel is president and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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