VAI Begins Parkinson's Research

January 24, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Institute is establishing a dedicated Parkinson’s research lab in memory of Jay Van Andel.

David and Carol Van Andel plan to create a $3 million endowed chair at the VAI that will provide funding for lead scientists to direct the Parkinson’s research effort.

The David and Carol Van Andel Foundation, John and Nancy Kennedy, William and Sandy Nicholson, Ralph and Grace Hauenstein and anonymous donors have collectively pledged $400,000 toward the project. 

David Van Andel, VAI chairman and CEO, said he couldn’t think of a more fitting way to memorialize his father’s life than through the endowed chair. He noted that his father knew prior to his death that the institute was going to embark on Parkinson’s research.

“We had talked about this for many months,” Van Andel said. “I think the most important thing of all of this is that this is the first major step on the part of the institute to branch out into other areas of research, as we’ve said from the beginning we were going to do.

“There are a lot of synergies with what we’re doing on the cancer side of the equation. We’re already seeing a lot of similarities in the origins of the two diseases. I’m sure we’ll find out maybe some things that are common factors in causing each of those diseases to begin to develop. If we can understand those, perhaps we can understand preventive therapies and, ultimately, cures.”

Van Andel said the VAI’s Parkinson’s research would continue “until we have a significant success or we find an absolute cure for Parkinson’s.” He said the institute will fund the Parkinson’s research laboratory through its normal budgeting process.

Van Andel Research Institute deputy directors James Resau, Ph.D., and Bin Tean Teh, M.D., Ph.D., have been tapped to lead the research.

Parkinson’s is a chronic, progressive neurological disorder caused by the premature death or degeneration of certain nerve cells in a specific region of the brain. A neurochemical called dopamine controls the communication among brain cells and gives the body control over motor function. The loss of dopamine causes the primary symptoms of Parkinson, such as tremors, stiffness and difficulty with balance.

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, 80 percent of dopamine-producing cells are lost before the motor symptoms of the disease actually appear. NPF estimates that about 1.5 million Americans currently suffer from the disease and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Resau and Teh will study adult neuronal stem cells and how they mature, grow and die. Neurons use biochemical reactions to receive, process and transmit information. Stem cells, which can be found throughout the human body, are capable of renewing themselves and can generate multiple cell and tissue types.

For example, if part of the liver is removed surgically, the stem cells that exist in the liver are stimulated and can actually replace a portion of the liver, Resau said.

“If you can isolate stem cells and define them and then add the right stimulus, you can produce them,” he said.

Although the VAI has dabbled in adult stem cell research in its study of cancer, Van Andel said stem cell research for Parkinson’s holds a lot more promise in being able to at least mitigate symptoms — if not ultimately cure the disease.

Resau and Teh will work in collaboration with Australian scientists, one of whom is an acquaintance of Teh and who has been working primarily in Parkinson’s research. Resau did some Parkinson’s research, too, while a faculty member at the University of Maryland

Van Andel said the VAI is teaming with the Australians because they have identified specific stem cells that are integral to Parkinson’s research.

“They need some of the expertise we bring to the table and we need some of the expertise they have,” he said. “The sum of the whole is greater than the two parts in this case.”

Resau said Parkinson’s involves both genetics and environmental factors but that there is no genetic profile and no one environmental setting that appears to predict with certainty who is likely to develop Parkinson’s.

“We know Parkinson’s runs in families and we know it runs in certain occupations and geographical areas. There’s very likely some genetic inheritance that when combined with an environmental exposure makes some people at great risk.

“To accurately understand how Parkinson’s develops, we must have a human model of this disease that accounts for both known genetic and environmental factors and their possible interactions.”

VAI will receive stem cells from its collaborators, grow them, then manipulate them to see what the molecular and genetic markers are for normal growth, altered growth and injury, Resau explained.

“Then what we hope is that there will be clinicians that will provide us with samples from people that have Parkinson’s or other neuropathologies, and we’ll see if what we observed in our model has correlates or parallels. This research will hopefully enable us to create a model that may one day lead to preventative treatment.”

The VAI’s plans come as Saint Mary’s Health Care is preparing to develop a $30 million medical center dedicated to diagnosing and treating people with neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s.

Saint Mary’s CEO Phil McCorkle sees plenty of opportunity for collaboration between the two. He said the hospital would provide the tissue samples that VAI scientists need for their research and the clinical setting to apply their findings, as well as any new treatments.

“The more we can do collaboratively with the Van Andel Institute, we really might be able to effect the outcome of these patients,” McCorkle told the Business Journal.    

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