VAI Has Big Plans For The New Year

As a parent of four boys, I have marveled at the vast changes that science and technology have driven in a single generation. With the sequencing of the human genome, we are living in an unprecedented era of molecular medicine. With great knowledge comes great opportunity. Tremendous challenge is inherent in both.

Since opening our doors in 2000, the Van Andel Institute has embraced significant challenges. We have worked to conquer disease through groundbreaking biomedical research. We have sought to enrich minds through development of model educational programs. And together with local and statewide partners, we have begun to transform our regional and state economies, creating an environment that expands opportunities for medical education and research as well as life science industry growth and commercialization.

As we open the new year, I would like to reflect on some of the milestones we marked in 2006 and look ahead at what some of these milestones mean for the institute and for our community in 2007 and beyond.

I’ll begin with collaboration. While not a milestone in and of itself, collaboration is a practice that shapes all we do — and it is a hallmark of this region. For instance, VAI is a founding member of the Core Technology Alliance, an innovative network of Michigan research institutions and universities that makes sophisticated core technologies available on a fee-for-service basis to biotech and pharmaceutical firms, entrepreneurs and researchers.

This past August, the CTA announced its first agreement with a major out-of-state pharmaceutical firm. New Jersey-based Schering-Plough Research Institute is partnering with the CTA to support Schering-Plough’s drug discovery efforts. The company expects to initiate projects with several of the CTA’s nine core facilities, including VAI. Through initiatives such as this, the CTA is building a collaborative pipeline for drug development and is serving as a catalyst for biotech R&D and expansion of Michigan’s life science industry.

In another strong collaboration, in July VAI was awarded $1.5 million in 21st Century Jobs funding to develop a research alliance called ClinXus. Through ClinXus, VAI and our partners — Grand Valley Internal Medicine, Grand Valley State University, Jasper Clinical, Saint Mary’s Health Care, and Spectrum Health — will market our collective expertise and clinical research capabilities to pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms interested in conducting clinical trials in oncology, ophthalmology, and cardiovascular, inflammatory, neurological, metabolic and endocrine disease.

Our goals are to offer easier access to cutting-edge health care and technology and establish West Michigan as a national destination for innovative clinical research.

As we discuss health care in West Michigan, we cannot ignore the issue of access. That’s why VAI and its partners in the West Michigan Chapter of the Michigan Cancer Consortium met throughout 2006 to discuss ways to reach the uninsured and underinsured with life-saving cancer detection and therapies. Our research will continue in 2007 with the goal of bringing more uninsured and underinsured women into the system for breast, cervical and colorectal screening and appropriate treatment.

The Van Andel Institute, Michigan State University and other community leaders also made great progress in 2006 toward plans to bring MSU’s College of Human Medicine to West Michigan. In October, MSU President Lou Anna Simon and I signed a medical education and research collaboration agreement. The agreement calls for the university to lease office, research and instructional lab space from VAI. This agreement also engages medical faculty in cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and neurobiology research clusters funded by VAI and MSU. The research clusters will be designed to rapidly translate biomedical discoveries into diagnoses and treatments that improve human health.

The benefits for research, the economy and the quality of life in West Michigan are equally apparent: the medical school will create opportunity for immediate research collaborations between partnering institutions, help us attract top-tier scientists and federal research funding to West Michigan and increase translational research in areas of clinical strength in West Michigan.

Also on the education front, the Van Andel Education Institute launched an elementary level Science Academy in February and welcomed our first cohort of fourth and fifth grade students this past summer. Using a rigorous life-science curriculum in an out-of-school-time program, we hope to motivate children to dig deeper into scientific questions and inspire them to believe they can be scientists. We will also use the academy as a platform for professional development and research. As we find out more about how children learn science, we hope to use that knowledge to develop creative new model programs.

At the other end of the education continuum, this past spring we welcomed Dr. Steven Triezenberg as founding dean of the Van Andel Institute Graduate School in cellular and molecular biology. We expect to welcome our first class of graduate students in August.

This year marks an exciting period of growth for VAI. We look forward to breaking ground on our $160 million expansion this spring. Phase II will more than double our current lab space, broadening our capabilities in genetic and molecular cancer research and supporting our new Parkinson disease initiative. Ultimately, we expect to employ approximately 800 people, including a research staff of over 600.

This will also be a year of significant change as our esteemed director of research, Dr. George Vande Woude, steps back into the lab to refocus his time on cancer research here at the institute. Vande Woude has made immeasurable contributions to the Van Andel Institute and to the world of cancer research — contributions recognized this past year when he was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. We look forward this year to using the knowledge he and other leaders in the genomic revolution have entrusted us with as we continue our quest to conquer cancer and enrich lives.

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

No posts to display