When smaller is better

July 20, 2009
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When you’re used to looking at minute cells through a microscope, smaller might seem better.

That’s what John Risinger thinks. A leading researcher in cancer of the female reproductive system, Risinger left Memorial University in Savannah, Ga., to bring his work to Grand Rapids, and brought his posse with him.

“To be honest, someone like me can work in any major biomedical place in the United States. The problem is most of those are located in major metropolitan areas — and that’s not who my wife and I are,” said Risinger, 43.

Three additional researchers moved with Risinger from Savannah to Grand Rapids, and a fourth has been hired.

Born in England of an American father who was an oil company executive and a Scottish mother who had lived in Italy, Risinger grew up in New Jersey.

“I was, like a lot of people, a curious person, so science was attractive to me and life science in particular. I love things that are alive. I like to be outside. I was always drawn to biology as a student,” Risinger recalled.

When he was pursuing an undergraduate biology degree at tiny Albright College, a United Methodist-affiliated college in Reading, Pa., he decided against becoming a doctor because he did not want to treat people. He attended the University of Virginia for a master’s degree to get a taste of high-level molecular genetics. He became a researcher for the National Institutes of Health and then obtained a doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spent 18 years as a federal researcher.

Risinger’s work has focused on ovarian and endometrial cancer and why they spread in the body — or don’t. The researchers are looking at changes in cancer caused by defects in a certain type of DNA repair.

His lab currently is located in Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, but will move into the Van Andel Research Institute once the addition, currently under construction, is completed in 2010.

Risinger joins the MSU medical school as director of gynecologic oncology research in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology. He will also be director for tissue biorepository at Spectrum Health, which is funding his position along with MSU.

He has been joined in Grand Rapids by his wife, Tracy Thompson, who is working with the medical school in public policy, and their daughter, Emma, 4.

He is leaving his job as director of the women’s cancer program at Memorial University Medical Center after just a few years. He was intrigued, he said, by connections between hospitals, the medical school and the research institute in Grand Rapids and the potential to move his work along faster toward therapeutics, diagnostics or prognostics, called translational research.

“It’s the exact thing that attracted me to Savannah four years ago, but here it’s like on steroids,” Risinger said. “It’s much bigger, it’s much stronger, it’s more developed. It’s a better opportunity.

“I could have stayed there in Savannah and I would have been five years behind where this effort is here, as far as developing the relationships. And the scope of the growth here on Michigan (Street) is pretty impressive.”

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