25 years on, Van Andel Institute is transforming human health

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Van Andel Institute’s story began with a vision: create a world-class biomedical research and education institute in Grand Rapids for the betterment of human health for generations to come.

To many, this seemed like a tall order — too tall, they said. But my father, Jay Van Andel, having decided to create the Institute, also was clear that Grand Rapids was the place.

Why not Grand Rapids? He asked this question despite the skeptics who urged him to build the Institute in a much larger city, or closer to a top-tier university with an established research enterprise. Still, my family was set on supporting the region that had long supported us.

So, in 1996, the decision was made by the family to officially found the Van Andel Institute. This year, we celebrate 25 years of innovation, breakthroughs and growth.

From the beginning, we said we would never be the biggest, but we were determined to be the best. We also knew it would take years, even decades, of hard work and dedication. But once we began, it didn’t take long for the fruits of our labor to bloom.

Over the years, we’ve made vital breakthroughs in diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s, and in the areas of cell biology, structural biology, and metabolism and nutrition. We’ve found evidence of the origins of Parkinson’s disease in places you wouldn’t suspect, such as the nose and the appendix. VAI scientists are developing a combination blood test that could detect pancreatic cancer earlier, and the test is currently undergoing clinical validation to test its efficacy in real-world settings. We are a national powerhouse of epigenetics research, investigating the very code that makes us who we are.

Through it all, we are committed to translating discovery into the clinic, where it can help people live longer, healthier lives. We support an array of clinical trials designed to find effective new treatments and therapies, most notably through our collaborations with Cure Parkinson’s in the United Kingdom and the work of the Van Andel Institute-Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team.

VAI also remains dedicated to developing the next generation of scientists who will build on the foundations our world-class faculty have laid. Our expert educators at Van Andel Institute for Education offer cutting-edge science educational programming for K-12 educators and students, and Van Andel Institute Graduate School trains the scientific leaders of tomorrow through a rigorous Ph.D. program in molecular and cellular biology.

As we look back on and celebrate our history, we also have our sights set on the next 25 years. VAI recently welcomed six new faculty members under a recruitment push to expand our research capacity in our areas of strength.

In August, Van Andel Institute Graduate School welcomed its largest and most diverse student cohort yet: 14 students from eight countries. Van Andel Institute for Education has deftly responded to upheavals in the educational landscape by tailoring its programs to be available online, in-person or a hybrid of the two — positioning us well as a valuable asset for educators everywhere.

As an independent, not-for-profit organization, we could not do this work without this community. I wish that I could mention here every name, every school and organization, and every family that has contributed to our success over the years. There are so many who invested their time, energy and resources into our work. We are so grateful for all who support our mission through their generosity.

This support has helped our Institute come so far. From those early days, with a staff in the dozens and temporary research space at Butterworth Hospital, we’ve grown into an organization whose work is recognized around the globe, boasting almost 500 scientists, educators and staff.

The Medical Mile continues to spring up around VAI. My parents would be proud that their decision to build the Institute in Grand Rapids spurred such strong investment and growth in health and biomedical sciences. Their vision set the pace and tone for a bright future where VAI can continue to help lead the charge into a healthier future for all of humankind. As we mark our 25th anniversary, we are as energized as ever to carry the torch into the next quarter-century and beyond.

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