Connecting disease origins through metabolism

As technology continues to reshape how we interact with the world, advances in science and medicine are helping us live longer than ever before, a positive outcome tempered by a parallel and concerning rise in certain diseases.

According to recent estimates from the World Health Organization and other experts, the number of cancer cases diagnosed each year around the globe is expected to jump from 14.1 million to more than 23 million cases by 2030. A similar trend likely will be seen in the frequency of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is projected to double to more than 14 million people by 2030. And the statistics for diabetes are even worse; cases already have quadrupled from 1980 levels.

These are real challenges that we, as a society, will face. At Van Andel Institute, we are constantly looking for ways to prepare for the future, by addressing these looming increases through innovative solutions and previously unknown connections. That is where the body’s metabolism comes in.

Often thought of as related to health and nutrition, in actuality, our metabolism is a set of processes that powers each and every function in the human body, from keeping blood pumping to regulating appetites. Our metabolisms are in a constant balancing act; when disrupted, the results can be catastrophic. While we’ve known for some time that diseases like diabetes are metabolic in nature and that others, like cancer, also are spurred by alterations in cellular metabolism, we now also know that a breakdown of normal metabolism likely plays a role in other conditions such as Parkinson’s, a stark departure from earlier views of the disease.

Though at first glance these diseases are vastly different, we are starting to learn that metabolism might be the link that connects them. Thanks to research, we know that cancer is a collection of more than 100 different disorders characterized by uncontrollable, invasive cell growth. Parkinson’s results from the death of dopamine-producing brain cells, which eventually robs people of their ability to move and often inflicts a host of other symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues and sleep problems. Diabetes is a malfunction in the way the body processes sugars, the molecular fuel that’s needed to keep the body up and running.

However, when taking a closer look, made possible by a series of recent scientific breakthroughs, common threads are revealed that may be leveraged to improve health and save lives. At Van Andel Institute, we’re taking bold steps by establishing a one-of-a-kind, comprehensive research program in metabolism and nutrition with the goal of promoting health and better treating disease. This work will bridge dozens of fields of study and will mesh with each of the institute’s other areas of focus — epigenetics, cancer, neurodegeneration (including Parkinson’s), skeletal disease and structural biology.

To do this, we’ve recruited four exceptional scientists from prestigious institutions in Canada and Germany who have joined our existing expert investigators to make this hope a reality. Their goals are as bold as they are urgent: determine exactly how metabolism works in health and in disease, translate these findings into more effective means of patient care and develop scientifically driven strategies to measure risk and prevent disease.

Together with our collaborators on the Medical Mile and across the globe, we will delve into the impact that diet and nutrition have on the most basic components of our bodies — the genome and epigenome. These systems govern our health, our predisposition for disease and our biological fate (and, perhaps more importantly, the biological fates of our children). Our approach will be rigorous and methodical; these fields of study have life-changing implications for improving human health and, as such, deserve nothing but our absolute best efforts.

We are truly fortunate to be surrounded by world-class medical and research organizations here in Grand Rapids, which offer outstanding opportunities to align our work with the challenges that physicians and patients experience in the clinic every day. In this way, we view our new program as a catalyst for strengthening the translational research pipeline in Grand Rapids, an important step in getting new, more effective therapeutic strategies to the patients that need them most.

As the population continues to grow, it is incumbent that we collectively ensure that future generations benefit from our experiences and knowledge. Together, we have a chance to create a better, healthier future, one where innovative solutions solve age-old problems.

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

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