Health Care and Technology

Spectrum facility to promote research and program growth

Four new labs will give professionals and students a chance to collaborate.

March 21, 2014
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Spectrum facility to promote research and program growth
Dr. Sandra Rempel shows off some of the new lab space that Spectrum Health recently opened in the Cooper’s Landing Building. Photo by Rachel Weick

A refurbished facility on the fringe of downtown will provide biomedical research space for tenants on the Medical Mile.

Spectrum Health recently opened a newly renovated laboratory space at 1345 Monroe Ave. NW in the Cooper’s Landing building. The Spectrum Health Basic and Translational Research Laboratories will support long-standing clinical trial efforts and research programs, in addition to providing academic opportunities.

The approximately 9,000-square-foot renovated laboratory space accommodates fundamental and clinical research in brain tumors, pediatric urology and neuroblastoma, and blood and marrow transplantation. Spectrum said the new laboratory complements the organization’s track record in clinical trials by supplementing a wet lab and a translational “bench-to-bedside” aspect to the range of research.

Dr. Sandra Rempel, vice president of research at Spectrum Health, said the facility enhances the organization’s efforts to become a truly academic institution, with the goal of potentially retaining residents, clinical fellows and graduate students in the Grand Rapids area.

“I think that having brought new research opportunities to the region will actually help us bring in and educate students, and then, hopefully, entice them to want to stay in the area and increase the professionalism and level of education in the area,” said Rempel.

Rempel oversees all clinical, translational and basic research at Spectrum Health, which includes planning, recruiting, compliance and support.

“We have some arrangements right now with different universities for them to come in for the clinical side,” said Rempel. “But we are just developing now the arrangements that need to be made to allow the students to come in to the basic and translational laboratories.”

Training conducted at the laboratory would include basics in molecular and cell biology, translational research, and connecting individuals interested in clinical research with colleagues within the Spectrum Health organization. 

Basic research would involve looking at cells in vitro, or isolated samples from the living organism, and manipulating them in a way to study specific genes and the resulting effects on the sample.

“They will also, if they are interested, take that a step up and look at translational research — (by that) I mean taking what you see in vitro and asking, do you see the same effects in a living model?” said Rempel. “From there, if they were on the medical side and wanted to look at more clinical research, they could then tie in with our colleagues over at Spectrum Health to be able to do studies in clinical trials.”

According to Rempel, Spectrum also is exploring a summer volunteer-based internship program for individuals interested in gaining experience in research. The program would focus on a project and does not necessarily require those interested to have an official relationship with one of the surrounding area institutions.

Currently, Rempel is in the process of establishing an academic framework within the Van Andel Institute, Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine and Spectrum Health alliance.

Marsha Rappley, dean of the MSU College of Human Medicine, said the college has a long-standing history of collaborating with Spectrum Health, and has placed third- and fourth-year students with the health care system for decades.

MSU and Spectrum Health began thinking of a research mission in 2006 that included Van Andel Institute, which would help both organizations, according to Rappley.

“I think we have a lot to show for our institutions working collaboratively to advance science, and advance science in Grand Rapids,” said Rappley. “I think that together we are achieving things that wouldn’t have been possible were we each going our separate ways. And that was the plan — that was the driving force behind bringing the med school headquarters to Grand Rapids.”

The Spectrum Health Basic and Translational Laboratories also will enhance the ability to recruit world-class physicians and scientists to assist in achieving patient care and outcome goals, according to Spectrum. With shared workspaces designed to allow researchers access to critical equipment, the facility also has four distinct labs: blood and marrow transplantation, pediatric urology, pediatric oncology and molecular neuro-oncology.

As lead principal investigator for the molecular neuro-oncology lab, Rempel focuses on treating malignant brain tumors, specifically a glioblastoma multiforme, which is the most common and aggressive form of brain tumor. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, glioblastomas typically are found in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, and the cancerous cells reproduce quickly and are supported by a large network of blood vessels. Patients with the brain tumor live an average of 14.6 months under current treatment options.

Rempel is investigating a method of suppressing the expression of SPARC, or secreted protein acidic and rich in cysteine, to halt the growth of the tumors. Her research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and has potential clinical applications for patients of the new Brain and Spine Tumor Center, according to Spectrum.

Additional principal investigators — Drs. Kirstan Meldrum, Giselle Sholler and Ahma Samer Al-Homsi — will oversee their own laboratories and research within the building. 

Meldrum, section chief of pediatric urology at Spectrum Health, will focus on preventing or reversing renal fibrosis research for pediatric patients. Renal fibrosis is the abnormal formation of fibrous tissue in the kidneys, which is the final common pathway for forms of chronic kidney disease.

As head of the pediatric oncology lab and the Neuroblastoma and Medulloblastoma Translational Research Consortium, Sholler’s research focuses on inhibiting tumor growth and relapse in pediatric patients. The consortium consists of 18 universities and children’s hospitals and is headquartered at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, with the mission of advocating new therapies for children with relapsed tumors. Neuroblastomas and medulloblastomas are both malignant tumors that typically occur in children.

The blood and marrow transplantation lab is led by principal investigator Al-Homsi. The research conducted is an integral part of the recent transplant program offered at Spectrum. The program not only allows patients to receive treatment closer to home in West Michigan, but also will support clinical work at Spectrum Health. The laboratory research will focus on graft versus host disease and identifying drugs that target dendritic cells.

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