Improving human health requires big thinking

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Diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s can only be defeated by big, bold thinking. Grand Rapids — today a thriving hub of medical and biomedical ingenuity and education — is up to the task.

Some of the world’s top doctors and scientists work right here, on the Medical Mile, where they are pursuing a healthier future for all of humanity. It’s the embodiment of the spirit that has long made Grand Rapids stand out: The few, coming together for the benefit of the many.

It is, after all, the small parts that assemble to create the whole. A painting is created by countless brushstrokes. Individuals join together to form communities. Our bodies themselves are made up of trillions of molecules, each coming together with its own purpose and function to make us who we are.

Yet, for all we know about those miniscule components, there still is much to learn about how they impact the bigger picture. Thanks to remarkable advancements in technology, we at Van Andel Institute wield a powerful tool that is transforming our understanding of the microscopic elements that underpin human biology and, by extension, health and disease.

Five years ago, VAI welcomed a remarkable machine: a Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope. This isn’t the microscope of your middle school science class. It is a towering piece of equipment, with cameras capable of capturing stunningly detailed images of molecules 1/10,000th the width of a human hair. It’s like having eyes powerful enough that you could sit on the moon and watch a football game on Earth.

Cryo-EM’s arrival at the Institute burnished Grand Rapids’ global reputation as a major hub of innovation in the life and health sciences. Our scientists have used it to great effect, bringing to our city rapid advancements in our understanding of the most fundamental aspects of health and disease. The microscope is so powerful, so sought after, and so few in number that it places VAI in rare company.

This technology’s ability to move the needle on scientific knowledge cannot be overstated. Cryo-EM’s fingerprints can be found throughout VAI’s research, and our structural biologists have used it to fundamentally change our understanding of some of life’s most basic questions.

It has helped us reveal potential drug targets for treating cancer, tuberculosis and a host of other diseases. We have used it to visualize molecular components responsible for vital biological functions, including how our cells copy our genetic code and how we perceive taste.

Cryo-EM also has helped VAI scientists visualize pathways in the body that are instrumental in functions like blood pressure regulation, inflammation and even cell death. We’ve used it to show the structure of a protein that, among other things, regulates body temperature. These findings help us understand key biological functions, and also could someday help target treatments for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and bipolar disorder. 

Recently, our scientists leveraged cryo-EM to capture high-resolution images of a taste-sensing molecule that is concentrated in our taste buds. This molecule, in addition to its role in how we taste our favorite foods, also has a hand in blood sugar regulation. By visualizing its structure, VAI scientists revealed areas that may hold promise for targeting treatments for diabetes and other metabolic and immune diseases. The findings even have implications for the future of food science. Further research into the molecule could one day lead to the creation of new, low-calorie sweeteners.

Though the subjects of these findings are indeed small, these are not small findings. They are foundational to life. They help scientists pinpoint possible new treatments for diseases. They answer questions of science and biology that have loomed for decades.

In many ways, cryo-EM’s abilities to make big the small is an apt symbol for the Institute’s own story. Our beginnings were humble, our staff few. We didn’t yet have our state-of-the-art facilities; we worked from temporary offices in the nearby hospital. The task before us was monumental, and the journey long, but our ambitions were limitless. Our vision was grand.

And we knew then, as we know now, that the breakthroughs that positively impact human health arrive because of the many smaller steps we took along the way. Our journey continues, and our pace is hastened by the power of collaboration and cutting-edge technologies that will bring us to an ever-healthier, brighter future.

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

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