Collaborations driven by cooperation extend the hope for cancer patients


    As any cancer patient or survivor can attest, the fight against this dread disease is not one that can be waged alone — not by a patient, not by a physician, and not even by a nation, which must rely on a network of international researchers speaking a common language of science to provide the most up-to-date treatments for its citizens.

    Even an independent cancer research institute like Van Andel Institute must rely on a wide network of collaborative partners to quicken the pace of discovery in an effort to bring improved treatments to patients. From the beginning, the vision of Van Andel Institute and that of our research, clinical and philanthropic partners on the Medical Mile has been one of collaboration.

    We now know that there will be no single “cure” for cancer. Curing a disease that takes the lives of more than seven million men, women and children worldwide each year will instead involve a host of improved treatments for a wide variety of cancers developed through the cooperation and involvement of numerous research, health care and pharmaceutical partners.

    Due in large part to this spirit of collaboration, recent progress from Van Andel Institute labs, from those of our partners on the Medical Mile, and from the labs of our partners throughout the region, across the nation and around the world is having an  impact on patients in West Michigan and half a world away.

    Cancer is devastating for all patients and families, but it is especially tragic when it afflicts children. As such, it is fitting that recent research is having an impact on the lives of the smallest among us.

    In 2008, Van Andel Institute undertook a collaborative study with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University sponsored by the Gerber Foundation.

    By determining the levels of a certain protein present in children suffering from Wilms’ tumor, the most common type of kidney cancer to affect children, researchers have found a promising drug target that could lead to alternative treatments allowing many of these small patients to avoid the rigors and stress involved with the lengthy treatments involving chemotherapy.

    In another important collaborative effort, researchers and physicians at Children’s Memorial Research Center of Chicago are using a software and database system developed by Van Andel Institute scientists known as XenoBase to predict how children with brain tumors will react to treatment. In addition to cancer studies, researchers will use the tool to study food allergies, and to help clinicians filter, analyze and use data to help pediatric critical care patients who are on life support or organ support systems.

    In addition to projects involving local and regional partners, Van Andel Institute scientists are also working with partners around the globe to develop treatments for cancers that don’t receive much attention or funding in the United States — so-called orphan diseases.

    International collaborations allow Van Andel Institute researchers to study forms of cancer that are not prevalent enough in the United States to allow much access to patient samples. One recent partnership with researchers at Kohn Kaen University in Thailand and the National Cancer Centre, Singapore, allows researchers access to patients with bile duct cancer in Thailand, where it is 450 time more prevalent than in the United States. This study has identified genes that may play an important role in the cancer’s diagnosis and treatment.

    Finally, closer to home, another important Van Andel Institute project involves identifying a gene in colon cancer patients that determines the effectiveness of certain drug treatments. This study couldn’t take place without the participation of clinical researchers at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and cancer patients of West Michigan who have willingly donated their tumors for research — another example of the widespread community support that makes this important research possible.

    The people of West Michigan have created something of importance and significance in the construction of the research and clinical facilities along the Medical Mile. As we look out upon the skyline of downtown Grand Rapids, it may be tempting to become self-congratulatory, but this is no time to let up in our quest to eliminate cancer from our midst.

    If you visit Van Andel Institute, you can talk to the scientists who are engaged in this important work. If you ask what drives them to dedicate their lives to research, the first thing that most will talk about is their love of science. But if you probe a little more, you will also find that like so many other people, their lives have been profoundly impacted by the loss of a loved one to cancer.

    It doesn’t take a number like seven million to understand the importance of eradicating this disease. Those whose lives have been touched by cancer need only remember the face of a loved one who is no longer among us.

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

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