VAI Expects Global Impact

GRAND RAPIDS — The study of genomics has changed the focus of medicine forever and stands to change the whole dynamic of health care in this country.

This new field of research opened up in 2000 when the monumental task of sequencing the human genome was completed, giving scientists the tools to begin to understand how to predict disease and prevent it by reprogramming genes in the human body.

The promise of the Van Andel Institute is to make a global impact on human health, said CEO David Van Andel, and that starts with the very building blocks of life — genes.

“In this country, specifically, we are very focused on trying to cure disease,” Van Andel said at the kickoff of GrandValleyStateUniversity‘s Seidman College of Business 2005 breakfast series.

“We have to figure out what that means. What if we could prevent a loved one from ever having a disease?” Van Andel asked. “What if we could predict at birth that a person would develop a disease and do something about it then?”

There are thousands of proteins in different combinations in the body that influence all the genes. The search is on at the VAI and many other research institutions to identify how and why proteins influence genes.

“We need to understand what influences those proteins to understand how they ultimately influence genes and how we might prevent some diseases in the first place. The impact of the Van Andel Institute on that, I believe, will be phenomenal.”

In 2000, the first year the Van Andel Research Institute labs were in operation, the institute did about $14 million in research. It’s doing $30 million in research this year. Over those five years its grants and awards have grown to more than $38 million total.

VAI’s scientists hail from 17 countries. The institute has 167 “cutting edge studies” currently underway in collaboration with 96 institutions in 16 countries. It’s researching methods to treat and prevent cancer, Parkinsons and other chronic disease.

“We are good, and we are getting recognition,” Van Andel said.

But he stressed the importance of encouraging and rewarding Michigan students to pursue educations in math and science so they can be prepared for the jobs of the future.

The VAI includes the Van Andel Education Institute, which is dedicated to strengthening science, math and technical education among children, because “children are the future of our success in the future of scientific advancement,” Van Andel said.

Van Andel expects the institute’s work will have a positive effect on health care and education, as well as the economy in West Michigan

The VAI will have tripled its current size by the end of 2008, and when Phase II’s 280,000-square-foot expansion is fully completed and operational, the institute will employ about 600.

“The economic promise of this project is huge,” Van Andel said.    

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