Staying sharp on the cutting edge

October 4, 2010
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Jeffrey Trent — Ph.D., fellow of the American College of Genetics, champion of the human genome project, scientific research director, bi-state professional — is convinced that the route to conquering disease runs straight through business.

“Big science is big business,” said Trent, who arrived in Grand Rapids last year as the new president and research director for the Van Andel Research Institute.

“The only path to benefit a patient of a discovery made inside a research institute is to align yourself with companies that have that as their mission and goal. Whether it’s forming new companies or participating with existing companies, it’s just a critical part of what we do.”

At VARI, the science research side of the Van Andel Institute, teams of scientists have set up shop to learn as much as they can about the basic biological mechanisms of diseases, focusing especially on cancer, neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, women’s health and others.

Trent also is president and scientific director at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, which he founded in 2002 in his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz.

Under Trent’s leadership, VARI and TGen have become sister organizations. Melding of the two continues to progress, he said, not only between the scientists but with the mission, as well.

“Yesterday I was on a phone call with a group that is looking at two of the opportunities that we have for potentially putting companies together. We have the opportunity to open them both here, as well as in Arizona, for example,” he said. “TGen has been very involved in new company formation. We’ve formed about a dozen companies in the last six and half years and had about four exits, and we’re certainly trying to mirror that type of process here, as well.”

In fact, Trent, who worked at the Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health — regarded as the best research house in the U.S., if not the world — has been a member of boards of directors and scientific boards at several companies that are focusing on moving discoveries off the bench and creating products out of them that doctors can use to help patients.

Trent said that the business side of science can be handled with the right mix of people and processes.

“We’re trying to build a culture that supports the management of science so that it’s science-led but business-supported. And that’s really the mantra that we have,” Trent said.

“We’ve developed a framework for that for each one of the scientists — myself included — here, having a set of key objectives, a set of milestones that we can look at, funding and budget around it. … Where we’ve been able to add value is adding a lot of project management support around the scientific endeavor with the overall intention of getting things quickly to the bedside of the patient.”

Trent spent 10 years at the HGRI-NIH in Bethesda, Md., where he was the founding scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research. As part of his NIH work, he promulgated discoveries that were the result of the effort to identify the 3 billion-bit code of chemicals that makes up a human being. He said he put those discoveries in front of scientists who might be able to use them to improve treatments.

Dr. Eric Green followed Trent as head of the HGRI-NIH’s in-house research laboratory, and today is director of the HGRI.

“Jeff is a builder — he is a visionary and a builder,” Green said. “He gets great passion not only turning the crank over and over again, but trying to think about how to build a better crank or how to turn it more efficiently.” 

Dr. Francis S. Collins, who was head of the HGRI and now is director of the NIH, recruited Trent in 1993. He and Trent had been on the research faculty at the University of Michigan.

“Jeff has a unique combination of tireless determination and scientific sophistication,” Collins wrote in an e-mail to the Business Journal. “As an internationally known leader in cancer research, as well as a highly regarded mentor of young scientists, Jeff brings a wealth of talents to this young organization.”

Green said Collins brought Trent to Maryland to build the Genome Project’s on-campus research laboratory “from scratch. … I give him tremendous credit. Not only are you creating something from the ground up, you’re in the bureaucracy known as the federal government, which has lots of wonderful things associated with it but has a lot of heavy lifting at times.”

While at the NIH, Trent’s job included searching for additional ways to apply the discoveries and new technologies that arose under the project, even before it was completed, Green said.

In 2002, Trent moved back to his hometown of Phoenix and started something else new: TGen.

“He likes to create and build,” Green said. “I know at your place out there, he’s taking over for somebody, so he’s not starting from scratch. But I’m quite sure he has a vision for doing it bigger, better, different. He loves to build and push the frontier.”

David Duggan, Ph.D., a research investigator in population genomics at TGen amd Trent’s softball teammate, met Trent 13 years ago as his post-doctoral advisor at NIH.  “He is a visionary. He sees things before many of the bright people he works with see it,” he said.

Duggan said it became apparent about three years ago that TGen needed another research direction to broaden its approach.

“We were at a point in translational genomics that we realized all the clinically important questions that we want and are hoping to address cannot be answered by genomics and genomics alone,” he said. “We really needed the strength of molecular and cellular biology as well as more classic basic science.”

At the same time, VARI’s founding scientific director, Dr. George VandeWoude, was ready to retire his administrative hat and spend more time as a scientist.

Duggan said the initial announcement that the two organizations would join came as a “shock,” but he soon saw the potential and said he now thinks it is paying more dividends than he anticipated. Leading scientists at TGen and VARI get together twice a year and often make informal connections, he said. 

Perhaps Trent’s biggest fan is his twin brother, John Trent, a Phoenix psychologist and Christian author. “Jeff is a phenomenal guy,” he said.

The Trent twins and their older brother, Joe, now a real estate agent, grew up in Phoenix. John Trent said that while they’ve never had their genomes analyzed, he believes he and his brother are fraternal twins. But they look enough alike to be mistaken for each other and sound enough alike that in high school, John would call girls and ask for dates in Jeff’s name.

A businesswoman who espoused strong Christian beliefs, their mother, the late Zoa Trent, was a profound influence on her boys. Left via divorce with three toddlers to feed and clothe, Zoa Trent rose in her career to become the vice president of a savings and loan, the first woman president of the American Marketing Association and was featured in The Wall Street Journal in 1958.

“I would argue that I have an entrepreneurial bent that started with a mother who was a businesswoman,” Jeff Trent added. “The late ’50s, early ’60s were not a great opportunity place for women at that level.”

In his 2006 book, “Breaking the Cycle of Divorce,” published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., John Trent recalled the faith his mother, who graduated from college at age 16, passed on to her sons. He recalled that she attended her sons’ sports events, washed their uniforms and took them to the library, even while building a career that was unconventional in her day.

“She prayed for us every day, often with tears in her eye during Jeff’s and my turbulent teen years,” he wrote. “She taught us how to be men, and not just men, but gentlemen. She always expected the best of us and forgave us the worst.”

Jeff Trent said he was a child when he vowed to forge a disease-fighting career after a family friend succumbed to lung cancer. “I actually don’t remember any interest beyond that,” he said.

He attended Indiana University at Bloomington for an undergraduate degree, then took master’s and doctorate degrees in genetics from the University of Arizona at Tucson.

At the U-M, Trent held an endowed professorship in cancer genetics, was professor of human genetics and radiation oncology, and was both deputy director and director of basic research for the U-M Health System’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. Today, he holds numerous board posts at cancer-related organizations and has published hundreds of scientific papers.

“He has really been a model of collaboration, both within TGen and now with the Van Andel and TGen together,” said John Trent, who often shares running time with his twin. “Jeff has great integrity and a lot of humility, but at the same time, he is tremendously gifted,” he said. “He has a great heart for people.”

Collins, an avowed Christian who has written a book about faith and science, said that faith plays a large role in the life of Jeff Trent.

“His faith is a central part of his life,” Collins said. “And he’s a pretty good guitar player!”

With offices nearly 2,000 miles apart, Jeff Trent splits his time between Phoenix and Grand Rapids, taking to the air more often than a migrating swallow.

“As the interactions between VARI and TGen mature, and the benefits to both local communities and states continue to pay dividends, I believe it will have been worth any inconvenience,” he said. “When weighed against the cost of the suffering of patients urgently waiting for our medical breakthroughs, the juggle is certainly doable.”

Slimmed-down computers and wireless Internet, he added, have turned what used to be down time during travel into productive time.

“The personal cost is, of course, the ache from being separated from family and loved ones at such regular intervals,” he said. But that has only put more emphasis on the time he does have with his wife of 34 years, Dee, his grown son and daughter, and one grandchild.

Trent said he sees the confluence of government research, academia and business in West Michigan. 

“It just takes a lot of effort and energy,” Trent said. “It takes a critical mass that you have to build around. It also takes, I think, drafting off people and groups that have been there and done that. This is obviously a remarkable entrepreneurial environment in western Michigan, with Amway and … if you look at the number of companies that have sprung up out of the diaspora of the Kalamazoo area. I think actually Michigan is well-positioned to think about how they can play a role in developing those. But part of it just requires doing it.”

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