Individual and collaborative efforts boost study of Parkinson's disease

February 4, 2010
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This year, about 200 people in West Michigan will be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. That's 200 people who will receive the devastating news that the tremors and stiffness they are experiencing will only get worse, that movement will become slower and balance is likely to be a problem.

In 1988, my father, Jay Van Andel, was one of those diagnosed with the disorder. He died in 2004 due to complications brought on by the disease.

Even though nearly six years have passed since his death, we still know relatively little about Parkinson's disease. We know that Parkinson's is a progressive disorder that occurs in the part of the brain that controls voluntary and involuntary movement, but we don't know why it happens or how to fix it. In fact, there isn't even a test that can accurately diagnose it.

At least not yet.

Van Andel Institute will be putting a microscope to Parkinson's disease in the coming months and years. The Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Lab is committed to finding ways to conclusively diagnose, treat and prevent Parkinson's disease. As part of VAI's Bringing Hope to Life Campaign, $4 million has been raised and set aside for this important mission. The money will be used to hire a scientific investigator and team of researchers and to purchase state-of-the-art equipment to assist them in the study of this neurological disorder. Also, the money will endow the Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Chair to ensure that the quest for a cure will be funded well into the future.

The timing could not be better.

Last month, Van Andel Institute unveiled its new Phase II expansion. The new $178 million, 240,000-square-foot building, located in the heart of Grand Rapids' Medical Mile, has doubled the institute’s size and nearly tripled its laboratory space, allowing us to move into new areas of research.

Also in 2009, VAI joined hands with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) of Phoenix. This alliance means that VAI’s expertise in basic medical research is now complemented by TGen's expertise in "translational" research — that is, taking laboratory discoveries and translating them into actual treatments that will benefit patients. I'm confident that VAI and TGen, two young and ambitious medical research operations, can make a difference in the lives of those living with Parkinson's disease.

In October, Michigan State University announced that a team of its researchers had been awarded a $6.2 million Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s disease grant by the National Institutes of Health. This grant makes MSU’s College of Human Medicine a major player in Parkinson’s research. By this summer, they will be joined by research colleagues recruited from the University of Cincinnati, comprising a team of eight investigators working full time in Grand Rapids, conducting research in Van Andel Institute labs and helping put West Michigan on the map as a hub of Parkinson’s research.

MSU was aided in this recruitment by VAI, Spectrum Health and another important partner, Saint Mary's Health Care, which serves as an essential part of the Parkinson equation. Saint Mary's opened its Hauenstein Center a year ago to treat people living with Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders such as ALS, Alzheimer's and epilepsy. That means the doctors who specialize in treating neurological disorders and a significant number of their patients can be found mere blocks from VAI. Our goal is to take our translational research directly to these patients through clinical trials in West Michigan and elsewhere.

Even before the Hauenstein Center opened and VAI expanded its laboratory space, Parkinson's was one of the many diseases studied at the institute. Since 2005, in partnership with Saint Mary’s, Distinguished Scientific Investigator Jim Resau, Ph.D., has collected genetic material from Parkinson’s patients and their families in efforts to track the genetic signature of the disease. Since joining the VAI team in 2006, Scientific Investigator Jeff MacKeigan, Ph.D., has studied how cells interact at the onset of Parkinson's disease, cancer and other diseases. He's also a Parkinson's Association of West Michigan board member.

Members of the West Michigan life sciences community are expanding individual and collaborative efforts in the study of Parkinson’s disease, inspiring one another in the process. As Parkinson’s prepares to strike another 200 West Michigan patients this year and continues to afflict more than 1.5 million patients nationwide, we at Van Andel Institute are ready to take on an even greater role in the fight to find a cure for this dread disease.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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