West Michigan, Medical Mile celebrate vital milestone

West Michigan celebrated an important milestone in early September on the road to becoming a sustainable life sciences and biomedical research hub: the grand opening of the Secchia Center, which houses the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, in the heart of Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile.

In recent “Vital Signs” columns, I have written extensively about the continued need for collaboration among the various research, clinical and educational entities of the Medical Mile, the necessity of further investments of financial and intellectual capital, and the impact this will have on recruiting the best and the brightest to West Michigan and bringing the latest in advanced treatments for cancer and other diseases to our community.

The opening of the MSU College of Human Medicine is emblematic of all of these issues and is indicative of the kind of nose-to-the-grindstone effort and forward-looking spirit that have shaped our community and its efforts along the Medical Mile — a combination of no-nonsense pragmatism and boundless enthusiasm and imagination found in people unafraid to take the steps necessary to move from vision to action.

The process of making the MSU College of Human Medicine a reality in Grand Rapids took the collaboration of many people and many institutions embracing a single vision. Beyond what it represents as a symbol of commitment, hard work and collaboration, however, the $90 million state-of-the-art facility takes its place as a vital part of the impressive infrastructure that supports the region’s rapidly growing medical education, research and health care initiatives. In addition to advancing the economic stature of West Michigan, the college helps to position the region as an innovative leader in biomedical research and the translation of research into therapies that directly benefit patients.

The presence of a medical school consistently ranked among the nation’s top 25 in primary care also helps to attract some of the world’s best and brightest researchers to a region that just a few short years ago would have drawn scant interest from the caliber of scientists that now call West Michigan home.

Want evidence?

Last October, Michigan State University announced that a team of its researchers had been awarded a $6.2 million Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease grant by the National Institutes of Health. This grant makes MSU’s College of Human Medicine a major player in Parkinson’s research. This past year, they were joined by research colleagues recruited from the University of Cincinnati, comprising a team of eight investigators working full time in Grand Rapids, conducting research in Van Andel Institute labs and helping to put West Michigan on the map as a hub of Parkinson’s research.

This past April, thanks to more collaborative efforts between MSU, Spectrum Health and Van Andel Institute, Grand Rapids become the new home for the MSU Center for Women’s Health and Reproduction Research housed in Van Andel Institute. The center is one of only 15 nationwide and is supported by a multi-year $6.8 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The recruitment of nationally recognized researchers and well-funded research programs to West Michigan signifies the potential to more rapidly move the basic research taking place in those labs into both the West Michigan patient population, and the general patient population as a whole.

The final, crucial step in that process is also about to become a reality, thanks to the spirit of collaboration that has existed among the entities of the Medical Mile from the beginning.

In July, Van Andel Institute, Spectrum Health and Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan announced an agreement to develop a Phase I clinical trial program. The program will be the link between the lab and clinical research involving patients, allowing faster, close-to-home access to potentially life-saving diagnostic and treatment options for West Michigan patients with cancer and other diseases.

Although this agreement is indicative of the strong and crucial relationships that have long existed between the research institutes, universities and colleges, and clinical organizations along the Medical Mile, the presence of a medical school significantly enhances the continual process of recruiting and attracting major grant funding and large-scale clinical trials to the region, and provides significant weight to West Michigan’s attempt to become a major national player in the biomedical and life sciences industry.

For those of us working together on the Medical Mile, the most exciting potential outcome of the Secchia Center’s recent grand opening is the one that undergirds the entire infrastructure supporting the one vital mission we share in common: the more rapid translation and commercialization of research into therapies and products to improve human health.

David Van Andel is chairman of Van Andel Institute.

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