“We’ve witnessed a revolution in biology with the complete sequencing of the human genome serving as a landmark,” said Dr. George Vande Woude, research director of the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), at the Sept. 26 event.
He said the feat was achieved in large measure by a consortium of academic and private efforts sponsored primarily by the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
The first genome era has stimulated a new consortium of computer scientists who, working with physicists, mathematicians, molecular biologists, biochemists, social biologists and with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, are creating an avalanche of new workers that are developing a myriad of new drugs and technologies to diagnose and treat cancer, Vande Woude said.
“It’s no small task that we face in conquering cancer. We cannot go it alone. We need to engage the community,” he said. “We’re committed to furthering the understanding of the causes of cancer and finding all the genes that are involved in the disease and why they contribute to it.”
To that end, the VAI is building a consortium in West Michigan.
The institute is establishing agreements with local hospitals and physicians to conduct gene expression profiling of cancerous tissue in patients in West Michigan.
It already has agreements with four West Michigan hospitals for clinical trials and is involved in collaborative research projects with the Grand Rapids medical community, Vande Woude said.
Spectrum Health Chief of Surgery Dr. Richard Kahnoski spoke about one of those collaborations — the relationship he and other area urologists have had with Dr. Bin Tean Teh, senior scientific investigator at the VARI.
Teh, formerly an associate professor in medical genetics at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, joined VARI in January 2000.
Three years ago Teh and Kahnoski formed a study group of urologists, and surgeons started identifying and enrolling kidney cancer patients to study their tumors.
For the last two years, Kahnoski and a team of Spectrum Health urologists, and more recently Metropolitan Hospital urologists, have been working with Teh’s research team on a treatment for kidney cancer.
Some 30,000 Americans will be affected by kidney cancer this year and 12,000 will die from the disease, Kahnoski noted.
“And it’s increasing despite the best minds working on it. The reason it’s increasing has eluded us.”
He said treatments today are only marginally better than they were 10 to 20 years ago. If surgeons can’t completely remove the tumor surgically, the patient invariably will die from the disease.
“Within these walls resides the data, the tissue, the equipment, the studies and the minds that are bringing new treatments for kidney cancer tantalizingly closer,” Kahnoski said of the VARI.
“We’re not talking about 20 years from now, and I don’t think we’re talking 10 years from now. What I’m saying is it’s close and getting closer. That’s very exciting. It’s happening right here at this institute.”
Kahnoski said that for him the first “startling discovery” was Teh’s announcement that his researchers could tell by the genes which tumors would spread, and that it had nothing to do with the size of the tumor or how quickly it was discovered.
“What they’re discovering here is of global significance,” Kahnoski said.
In May, the work was presented at the American Urologic Convention to a group of 15,000 urologists from around the world.
Kahnoski noted that several research centers across the country and the world are involved in kidney cancer research, including the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health and Stanford University.
After the VARI presentation, the group from Stanford called it “elegant work,” and “the little group from Grand Rapids” received a standing ovation, Kahnoski recalled.
On a grass roots level, it hasn’t been hard to recruit either surgeons or patients for the studies. Both were eager, and patients seldom refused to participate, he said.
“When a patient has this disease, he is often aged and often dying. There’s not much comfort sometimes for patients in that situation.
“I think the patient and the families often felt that perhaps there was a little meaning added to their life. And perhaps for some of them, this was their last unselfish act on this earth.”
He described Spectrum Butterworth surgeons’ collaboration with Teh as “a rare pleasure and distinct honor.”
Cancer survivor Gwen Hibbard told of her repeated battles with cancer since 1993.
“Having the Van Andel Institute in our midst is an incredible asset and personally gives me hope with their breakthroughs in the research of my deadly disease,” she said.
She commended the institute for sharing its research not only with other institutes and universities, but with community hospitals and local doctors.
“We will all be benefactors,” Hibbard said. “As a survivor, I am so grateful to the Van Andel family for their generosity in creating this marvelous institution.”
VAI scientists have published 56 papers in professional journals since the facility opened two years ago.
Among the institute’s recently announced breakthroughs are:
- Testing of a novel therapy for pancreatic cancer with initial clinical trials at Spectrum.
- Developing a potential therapy for melanoma.
- Identifying genes that will indicate favorable or unfavorable patient outcome for certain types of tumors.
- Sub-classifying kidney cancer through gene profiling to predict patient outcome.
- Collaborating on studies of testicular cancer with Dr. Larry Einhorn of Indiana University.
The VAI is partners with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University in the Life Sciences Corridor.
The institute also has a partnership with the McCarty Cancer Foundation in Detroit, which Darren McCarty of the Red Wings founded in honor of his father, who died of multiple myeloma.
The two organizations anticipate establishing a multiple myeloma lab at the VAI at some future time.