Life Sciences Impact Under Study

December 5, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — What is the future economic impact of the life sciences in Michigan and what kind of return on investment can both the state and the private sector expect from the life sciences industry?

Can innovations in biotech and the life sciences help restore the state’s economy and interest young professionals in locating here?

The Van Andel Institute (VAI), the University of Michigan, and Michigan State and Wayne State universities have contracted with a Lansing-based research firm to evaluate Michigan’s life sciences sector and seek the answer to those questions.

Results of the privately commissioned study being conducted by Anderson Economic Group (AEG) are to be released in late January, VAI Chairman and CEO David Van Andel told members of the Grand Rapids Rotary Club Thursday.

The AEG report will be coupled with an Ernst & Young report that recommended seven specific economic development strategies for life sciences in metro Grand Rapids, which The Right Place Inc. commissioned earlier this year.

Van Andel said the life sciences could be key to the state’s economic recovery and a real job generating industry for Michigan.

What is the economic promise of the VAI and the life sciences in Michigan in general?

Much of the economic impact of the life sciences will stem from innovative scientific collaborations among research institutes, hospitals and universities, he said.

“It’s the kind of collaborations you see on Michigan Street hill that will provide the economic stimulus for this region.

“West Michigan is uniquely positioned to lead the economic recovery. We have a strong entrepreneurial heritage, a highly skilled work force, a motivated manufacturing council and innovative business leaders. The state of Michigan also has a powerfully growing biotech and life sciences industry — innovative businesses that spawn research and investment.”

According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), Michigan’s life sciences sector had grown faster than that of any other state in the nation and has drawn 74 new companies to Michigan over the last three years.

By the MEDC’s count, the state is now home to 540 life sciences companies and some 32,000 life sciences workers.

“Michigan is currently a leader in the nation in the number of people employed in the life sciences industry,” Van Andel said. “Maybe our life sciences sector potentially could be our platform for job creation and it should be a keystone in the state’s economic recovery strategy.”

The VAI has focused on molecular cancer research since opening its world headquarters in Grand Rapids in May 2000.

Forty percent of all living Americans — one in two males and one in three females — will have cancer at some point in their lives, Van Andel pointed out, and that number is expected to grow to 50 percent by the year 2010.

The federal government spends only about $3 billion a year on cancer research, but spends $29 billion a year on AIDS research, he added.

“Unfortunately in the next month cancer will kill the equivalent number of all the AIDS cases that have been reported in deaths in this country.”

In addition to the endowment dollars committed by the Van Andel Foundation in 1996, the VAI relies on grans and private funding.

Since the year 2000, the institute has received $25.6 million in government grants, $13 million of it in state Life Sciences Corridor grants, Van Andel noted.

The institute has attracted 53 researchers from a dozen different countries working in 17 laboratories.

Advances in genomics will lead to genetic therapies that will change medicine from a field that diagnoses and treats diseases to one that predicts and prevents diseases, he said.

“Major scientific breakthroughs in the next decade will be in cancer, and the VAI will be at the forefront of that effort, ” Van Andel predicted.

He went on to outline the advances the institute has made this year, among them:

  • Van Andel Research Institute launched a tumor tissue donation campaign and partnered with several West Michigan hospitals to develop a ready supply of fresh tumor tissue for use in its gene expression profiling research.

  • Craig Webb, M.D, used gene expression profiling on tumor tissue collected from colon cancer patients and identified several genes that can predict recurrence of colon cancer and the patient’s risk of developing metastases.

  • Arthur Alberts, Ph.D., and his team uncovered two proteins that work in concert to trigger the spread of cancerous tumors, and are experimenting with a molecule that has the potential to block their interaction.

  • Bin Tean Teh, M.D., Ph.D. — in collaboration with Lawrence Einhorn, M.D., distinguished professor of medicine at Indiana University —  is applying the institute’s expertise in kidney cancer research to the study of testicular cancer. Einhorn began developing a chemotherapy regimen in 1974 that now effectively cures 90 percent of all testicular cancer.

  • Brian Haab, Ph.D., and his research team are using antibody microarray technology to gather complex protein measurements from pancreatic cancer patients and non-cancer patients. They are more than seven months into a two-year study designed to identify markers in blood that may help detect pancreatic cancer at earlier stages.

  • VARI is testing a novel therapy for pancreatic cancer in clinical trials in the Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology Program.

  • VARI scientists are working on a potential therapy for treating melanoma.

  • VARI scientists also have identified genes that can indicate favorable or unfavorable patient outcomes for certain types of pediatric and adult cancers — such as kidney and testicular cancer — and have sub-classified kidney cancer through gene profiling to predict patient outcome.

  • VARI teamed with the DeVos Children’s Hospital to train the next generation of pediatric oncologists and hematologists. In the pediatric fellowship program, which begins next July, the hospital will recruit one fellow a year for the three-year training program. The fellow physician will spend the first 18 months focusing on patient care at the hospital and the remaining 18 months training directly with VARI cancer biologists and geneticists.

“It is our goal to become a foremost pediatric cancer research center right here in the state of Michigan,” Van Andel said.

“The bottom line of all of this is that we now have a new paradigm for treating cancer. We’re building a whole new war chest today of new treatments and new tools and new approaches to treating this deadly disease.”           

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