Gerber Grant Helps VARI Study

January 17, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Research Institute has received a $750,000 grant from the Gerber Foundation to study cancer and chromosomal abnormalities in pediatric patients.

Miss America Deidre Downs presented the foundation’s check to VARI Tuesday while visiting town to promote her platform of curing childhood cancer.

The three-year grant follows on the heels of a $355,000 grant the Gerber Foundation awarded VARI in October 2003, which the institute used to purchase an Affymetrix Genechip System and launch research into pediatric kidney cancer.

The new grant funds a three-year continuation of the study, which has been broadened to include various other types of childhood cancers, as well as chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome.

VARI Senior Investigator Bin Tean Teh, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of research operations, continues to lead the study and will work in collaboration with Helga Toriello, M.D., and Albert Cornelius, M.D. Toriello is a geneticist with Spectrum Health and Cornelius heads the pediatric brain tumor clinic at DeVos Children’s Hospital.

In this new leg of the study, VARI scientists will perform gene and protein profiling on blood from affected patients at both hospitals to identify gene and protein signatures that could be used as targets for cancer therapy and to predict the clinical outcome in infants born with chromosomal abnormalities.

It’s been known for decades that children with mental retardation have chromosomal abnormalities, but nobody understands why, Teh said.

“We’re hoping that we can identify abnormal proteins in these kids that can help us to understand the mechanism underlying it. If we can apply our cancer research to other things, we’ll look at other things.”

Dr. William Bush, Gerber Foundation Board member, said the foundation’s mission is to enhance the lives of infants and children in the areas of nutrition, care and development.

“That’s the driving force behind the selection of our research projects,” Bush said. “In the past year we’ve been able to donate a biotechnological machine they did not have here so they were able to further define some of the targeted cancers. We appreciate their efforts and are happy to support them. We hope that this relationship continues for many years.”

Catherine Obits, Gerber Foundation’s program manager, said the VARI grant was the third largest the foundation has awarded in the past year.

“We’re very impressed with the work scientists are doing here, especially their work in childhood diseases,” she said.

In the first phase of the study, VARI researchers used the advanced Affymetrix Genechip system to identify genetic profiles of young patients with different types of cancer. They studied and characterized children’s tumor tissue samples supplied by DeVos Children’s Hospital and collaborated with physicians there to improve and develop treatment protocols.

According to the Gerber Foundation, “This laboratory/bedside partnership provides real-time results from laboratory experiments to the clinical setting and is expected to generate new ideas for future endeavors or identify new directions for study.”

In the earlier study VARI scientists worked to identify the molecular signatures in cancerous tissue because many cancers appear to have genetic signatures that correlate with a lot of features, such as the behavior of tumors, how aggressive they are and what type of drugs they will respond to, Teh explained. Once scientists identify the major players in the spread of cancer, new drugs can be designed to combat them, he said. He said the 2003 study provided substantial data and direction for the new research.

“In our preliminary study we identified some of the molecular signatures. We did a bunch of studies that were very successful and this is another step forward,” Teh said. “This new grant will extend that research and allow us now to establish even more advanced technology to detect abnormal proteins. In the first study we looked only at genes. This time we’re looking at genes and proteins together.”    

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