Research, education, Van Andel legacy fuel VAI achievement

January 23, 2010
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Clearly, 2009 was a special year at the Van Andel Institute.

Second generation leaders were appointed to lead the VAI's two units — the Van Andel Educational Institute and the Van Andel Research Institute. A new cross-country affiliation was announced. An impressive new addition was opened. More grants were received and more researchers joined, as the vision of the late Jay and Betty Van Andel continued its march toward reality under the leadership of their son, David, as chairman and CEO.

The VAI invested in a new partner, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, known as TGen, of Phoenix. TGen's leader, Dr. Jeffrey Trent, Ph.D.,  who had a major role in the groundbreaking Human Genome Project and is a former faculty member at the University of Michigan, replaced cancer investigator Dr. George Vande Woude, Ph.D., a former National Cancer Institute administrator who served as VARI's founding chief scientific officer.

"This alliance demonstrates that VAI and TGen are at the forefront of redefining a borderless, collaborative, national and international scientific community that transcends geographical limitations," Van Andel said.

"Combining many of the scientific, educational, financial and business potentials of TGen and VARI will advance the research of both institutions and enhance the economic development of both Arizona and western Michigan," Trent added.

In January 2009, Steve Triezenberg, Ph.D., dean of the VAI Graduate School and VARI scientific investigator, was appointed VAEI director upon the retirement of Gordon Van Harn. A former Calvin College professor, Van Harn gave shape to the late Betty Van Andel's vision to foster science education.

In December, the VAI threw open the doors of its $178 million, 240,000-square-foot Phase II expansion. Laboratory space is nearly tripled: Total square footage was brought to 400,000 and eventually the LEED-ready Phase II is expected to add 550 employees to the current roster of 250. The building was designed by New York architect Rafael Viñoly.

"The buildings that rise along Grand Rapids' Medical Mile stand as a testament to our community's ability to unite and work together," Van Andel said. "Now is the time to harness that ability to another challenge: to fill those buildings with the most capable individuals who will enable West Michigan to take its place as a leader among emerging life sciences sectors."

According to the VAI, participating firms in the expansion included Owen-Ames-Kimball Co.; The Hunt Construction Group; Culhane & Fahrenkrug Consulting LLC; URS; Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber; Materials Testing Consultants; and CommTech Design.

Occupying part of the addition will be a group of eight researchers brought here by a $6.2 million grant. The grant will establish a prestigious Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson's research here by summer. It was awarded by the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health.

Scientific Investigator Jeff MacKeigan, Ph.D., was awarded $1.3 million from the NIH for a five-year study of chemotherapy resistance in tumors, particularly in colon cancer. The study will examine the role of 13 enzymes discovered in MacKeigan's lab, with a particular focus on one of them. The work could impact ovarian and breast cancers, as well.

Research presented during 2009 may impact patients with herpes, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, acromegaly, bone marrow disease myelodysplastic syndrome and plant enzymes.

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