Remembering Van Andel Institute’s Dr. Viviane Labrie

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In August, the world tragically lost Dr. Viviane Labrie, an incredible scientist whose vibrant presence, remarkable intellect and boundless creativity will continue to have an impact for years to come.

Our hearts go out to her family and friends, and we send our most sincere wishes for comfort during this unspeakably difficult time.

Dr. Labrie joined Van Andel Institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science as an assistant professor in March 2016. In 2019, she was promoted to associate professor a year early — an achievement that underscored her vast scientific and professional achievements.

Dr. Labrie’s work at the Institute opened new avenues for exploration in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She furthered our understanding of Parkinson’s by revealing new connections between the gut and the brain. Of particular note was her discovery that the appendix may be a starting point for Parkinson’s, a revelation that was hailed as a game-changer by scientists around the world.

She answered longstanding questions in the field of neuroscience, including how slight differences between the two sides of the brain impact which side of the body is first affected by Parkinson’s. Dr. Labrie also revealed new insights into the underpinnings of lactose intolerance and how this relatively simple condition could inform our understanding of more complex neurodegenerative disorders.

Most recently, she and her collaborators discovered that switching off a molecular “master regulator” may protect the brain from inflammatory damage in Parkinson’s. The study was the first of its kind and pointed to new avenues for developing therapies designed to protect brain cells in Parkinson’s, something that is not possible with current treatments.

These examples are but a small snapshot of her innovative, outside-the-box and rigorous research. She was, as a colleague said recently, a “scientist’s scientist” who pursued new ideas in innovative, original ways. She had a talent for simply and compellingly explaining her research and its impact to the community and the world at large; Dr. Labrie had a knack for drawing others in with her enthusiasm and her hope to help create a healthier future.

Dr. Labrie is profoundly missed. There is, perhaps, some small comfort in the knowledge that her legacy, both as a person and as a scientist, will continue to make a difference in the world. The insights she uncovered are helping us chart a path toward a healthier future, one that surely will include new, life-changing treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. For that, we owe her our deepest thanks.

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

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