Scientific success breeds recruiting payoffs in area

In celebration of the recent grand opening of the 240,000-square-foot expansion at Van Andel Institute, we have welcomed thousands of local visitors into the Institute to have a look at the life-changing research into the genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer and other diseases that is taking place right in their hometown.

With the state in the midst of an ongoing net population decline, one question that is frequently asked is: “How do you attract such top-notch scientific talent to West Michigan?”

As the question indicates, recruiting the best and the brightest scientific and clinical minds to a region that is not a traditional center of scientific research such as Boston or San Diego remains a challenge. But the “cons” that were so important in the early days of the Medical Mile have been mitigated by recent developments.

Access to a teaching and research hospital is one giant hurdle that the region has cleared with the presence of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids.

And as research becomes more and more collaborative and international, advances in technology allow for greater de-centralization. With the flip of a switch, Van Andel Institute has immediate access and up-to-the-minute data from partner labs in Singapore, Nanjing, Phoenix, and other locations around the globe.

The positive attributes of the region that were attractive 20 years ago remain so today: the relatively low cost of living and the family-friendly, high quality of life. The development of the Medical Mile has been one of the factors that has helped contribute to a revitalized downtown that is now a center of attraction for visitors.

In addition, we have reached out to Midwesterners eager to return home and have actively recruited bright and capable minds from dozens of nations who have flocked here and made West Michigan a more cosmopolitan and vibrant community with their presence.

Although I could provide a sizeable list of personnel that meet these descriptions, I’d like to briefly mention a few of the talented professionals who have chosen to make Grand Rapids their home.

Recent visitors to the Institute have remarked upon the newly opened VAI Demonstration Lab, a 2,500-square-foot, fully functioning lab designed to allow visitors to interactively communicate with scientists and to witness first-hand the process of day-to-day research.

The Demonstration Lab houses the Laboratory of Systems Biology under the direction of Dr. Jeff MacKeigan, who is doing important work in identifying and studying the genes that control the growth and development of cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. MacKeigan is one of our youngest principal investigators, and is a Grand Rapids native who once worked in a more “traditional” center of biomedical research as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and as an investigator for Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. He is an excellent example of the type of talent we have been able to lure back to West Michigan.

Twenty years ago, graduate student Eric Xu, a native of China’s Fujian Province, and postdoctoral fellow Karsten Melcher, a native of Bremen, Germany, worked together at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas.

Today, reunited at Van Andel Institute where Dr. Xu heads the Laboratory of Structural Sciences in which Dr. Melcher works as a research scientist, the pair is winning accolades for recent work that could have major implications for addressing global food shortages.

Dr. Xu’s team, in parallel with several other groups, has determined precisely how a plant hormone known as abscisic acid, or ABA, works at the molecular level to help plants respond to environmental stresses such as drought and cold. This breakthrough, which could lead to the development of drought-resistant crops, was named by Science magazine as one of the Breakthroughs of the Year for 2009.

Dr. Melcher headed labs in Germany and the United Kingdom as a lecturer and principal investigator for more than 10 years before leaving the University of Ulster in 2007 to come to Xu’s VAI lab.

“I left a secure, tenured position in the U.K.,” Melcher told me. “That’s not easy to give up, but I was attracted by the opportunity to work with Eric.”

Dr. Xu believes that he is in the process of establishing one of the most cutting-edge structural biology research labs in the world. The grant makers at the National Institutes of Health confirm that analysis with their purse strings: Since he established the Laboratory of Structural Sciences at VAI in 2002, he has received four prestigious R01 grants totaling more than $4 million in funding.

Dr. Xu believes that Grand Rapids’ manufacturing heritage, industrial knowledge and infrastructure give the region a leg up among U.S. regions currently incubating life science corridors. He is also a firm believer in the entrepreneurial spirit of the region.

“North Carolina 20 years ago was nothing like the West Michigan of today,” says Xu. “The Research Triangle Park was tobacco farms. We have a much greater head start than North Carolina had.”

Dr. Xu’s success is an example of the kind of major impact that Van Andel Institute scientists strive to make on a daily basis. And his attitude is one that, indeed, reflects the spirit that makes West Michigan a potential national leader in biomedical research.

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

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