More diversity strengthens area community economy

April 1, 2011
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In the past few decades West Michigan has become a more vibrant community by welcoming a greater amount of demographic and economic diversity — and both types of diversity will be a source of strength to the region as we face the challenges of the 21st century knowledge economy.

If you visit the labs of Van Andel Research Institute, you will be struck by the fact that we are truly a multicultural microcosm of international scientific collaboration. At any given time you will see scientists from upwards of two dozen nations. That diversity makes Van Andel Institute a more effective research organization and contributes to making Grand Rapids a more diverse, interesting, sophisticated and livable city, which in turn strengthens the region’s ability to recruit top-caliber talent.

This willingness to collaborate with local, national and international scientists and organizations springs from one of VAI’s founding principles: the idea that borders are not barriers.

Several years ago, we launched VARI International, an effort to extend our laboratories to strategic overseas locations supported by VARI and local institutions.

By developing a worldwide network of laboratories, research centers and academic collaborations, our goal was to create global synergy to further biomedical research at home and internationally. One of the most important outcomes of the undertaking thus far has been a better understanding of diseases that do not generate much research funding in the U.S. due to their low rate of incidence.

For example, VARI has partnered with researchers in Thailand and Singapore to study patients with bile duct cancer in Thailand, where it is 450 time more prevalent than in the U.S. This study has identified genes that may play an important role in the cancer’s diagnosis and treatment.

A collaboration agreement between the National Cancer Centre of Singapore and VARI was established in 2006 to implement the NCCS-VARI Translational Research Program. The partnership has given VARI investigators easier access to larger numbers of patients with cancers such as liver cancer, stomach cancer, head and neck cancer, bile duct cancer and NK T-cell lymphoma that affect only small numbers of patients in the U.S., and has led to several discoveries with the potential to lead to profoundly improved cures for these types of cancers.

In China, a partnership has recently been established with Fudan University in Shanghai through the Fudan-VARI Center for Genetic Epidemiology. The new center will identify the genetic basis of cancers and other complex diseases and will use genetic information to develop strategies for disease risk-prediction, early diagnosis and personalized treatments, of benefit to China and the rest of the world.

And our newly established VARI-Shanghai Ltd., located in the Zhangjiang High-Tech Park where over 900 companies in the pharmaceutical, bio-tech and information technology are located, will offer a new dimension to VARI in scientific and medical research.

VARI International is currently exploring additional collaborations in Australia, Sweden, Malaysia, France and Japan. We hope to establish research centers in these and other countries dedicated to various medical areas such as neuroscience, molecular medicine, metabolic syndrome and drug development.

But let’s not forget what is happening locally.

The new buildings along the Medical Mile stand as a testament to our community’s ability to unite and work together. Now is the time to harness that ability to another challenge: We must seek out and generate the venture capital to kick-start the types of spin-offs and start-up companies that will form the next phase of West Michigan’s economic development.

These opportunities may include new business ventures dedicated to producing components for medical devices and packaging, to manufacturing ingredients for the research and clinical supply chain, to facilitating clinical trials and the drug development process and a host of other opportunities perhaps yet unimagined.

These economic opportunities will require the type of imaginative thinking that spawned the growth of the West Michigan life sciences corridor from scratch and that takes place in the labs of Van Andel Institute on a daily basis.

We are now part of a global economy in which competitors, consumers and operations may be located overseas; an economy characterized by fast-growing “gazelle” companies, new business start-ups and technology-producing industries; and an economy where for those ventures that survive the recent downturn, industry investment in R&D will again be strong, commercialization of products prolific, and the number of patents issued steadily growing.

Locally and internationally, the future holds many opportunities for investment and growth.

Because of the U.S.’s established infrastructure and high investment in basic research, our dominance in the development and production of high-risk, high-cost drugs will likely continue in the near future. However, both China and India are becoming increasingly competitive, and the factors of lower costs for drug trials and large pools of prospective patients combined with regulatory reform could enable both nations and others to become players in the international competition to produce breakthrough treatments.

In the next century, the development, production and distribution of pharmaceuticals and advanced treatments will likely become a more globally diffuse operation. But this will likely be a positive development resulting in more research and more drugs developed more efficiently. As the population of the developed world ages and the developing world becomes more affluent, the demand for medical technology will rise accordingly.

We are standing at a crossroads, but I am very confident in the direction in which Van Andel Institute, the economy of West Michigan and the continued global collaboration of the life science and biotech industries are headed.

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

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