Guest Column, Health Care, and Technology

Scientific collaborations drive discovery: revolutionizing the paradigm

April 1, 2016
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Two decades ago, mapping the human genome was a dream — rooted in the possibility of progress and the hope of discovery. The effort took years, but the persistence of an international network of scientists resulted in one of the greatest scientific accomplishments in history.

This endeavor wasn’t a one-person job — it took teamwork, and it also took time. Today, the landscape in biomedical research is changing in ways we could not have imagined. Chief among these differences is the speed of discovery, enabled by technological developments, an explosion of data and unprecedented connectivity.

Multi-institutional research teams, powered by rapidly advancing technology and increasingly specialized equipment, are moving faster than ever before to deepen our understanding of the role of genetics, epigenetics and key biological processes in the human body. These large-scale collaborations are accelerating applications of discovery in hope of breakthroughs that are translated into better treatments for many diseases including cancer and Parkinson’s.

Tackling challenging global health issues necessitates large-scale, creative approaches that weave together scientists, clinicians, patients, philanthropies, industry, government and other key stakeholders to leverage the intellectual capital and technological resources of all team members.

This spirit of teamwork is manifest in the creation of the federal National Cancer Moonshot, a collective effort to harness the knowledge and technological expertise of thousands of individuals and their home organizations, all with one goal in mind: to eliminate the threat of cancer. The $1 billion initiative is designed to break down barriers between physicians, scientists, patients, pharmaceutical companies and other stakeholders, and to fund innovative research that will lead to new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Collaboration is rightfully at the heart of this ambitious endeavor.

In Grand Rapids, Van Andel Research Institute and our neighbors on the Medical Mile are deeply committed to collaboration as a means to improve human health. Thanks in large part to these efforts, West Michigan is emerging as a hub for innovative biomedical research.

Ultimately, VARI’s goal is to move discoveries from the laboratory to patients, where they can have a direct impact on health. Collaborations play a key role in these efforts. A notable example is the Van Andel Research Institute-Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, which combines the expertise of leading scientists and clinicians with the resources of world-class organizations — VARI, Johns Hopkins University, University of Southern California, Memorial Sloan Kettering Comprehensive Cancer Center, Fox Chase Cancer Center/Temple University and Rigshospitalet/University of Copenhagen — to advance promising therapies into clinical trials, translating research into hope for patients. The team recently announced a Phase II clinical trial for metastatic colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. for men and women combined.

Important collaborations on a global scale also may lead to new therapies for diseases other than cancer. The Linked Clinical Trials initiative, spearheaded by United Kingdom research charity The Cure Parkinson’s Trust in collaboration with VARI, supports clinical trials in the U.S. and abroad. It brings together leading neuroscientists and clinicians from around the world to explore therapies that may slow or stop Parkinson’s disease progression, going beyond only treating symptoms. As a result, new trials are underway.

Clinical trials like these are critical as we search for new treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s. Over the next several years, VARI will expand the number of clinical trials orchestrated from Grand Rapids, made possible through increased collaboration with organizations spanning the globe.

While it is true scientific collaboration is not new, scientists now have the tools and technology to leverage their knowledge more effectively than ever before. In this exhilarating environment, organizations that foster a culture of collaboration will lead the way toward a future of better health for all.

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

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