Guest Column

The undeniable power of collaboration in health and education

January 6, 2017
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The health sciences in Grand Rapids are a driving force in the local economy and a powerful catalyst for regional growth. Since Van Andel Institute’s (VAI) founding in 1996, more than $2 billion of investment has flowed into the city on the Grand River to help expand the Medical Mile corridor. Today, the city is a thriving example of what is possible when a community supports a bold vision and builds an economy based on sustainability and the health and happiness of its residents.

In the past 20 years, the Medical Mile has become an epicenter for collaborative relationships that have a profound impact on biomedical research and science education. These partnerships span counties, states, continents, cultures and areas of expertise, but together, they provide an undeniable path forward that enriches our community in West Michigan.

Collaborating to develop effective clinical trials

Clinical trials are an essential step in the process of bringing life-changing diagnostics and therapies to the patients who need them. The trial process is not a simple one; successful trials are rigorously designed, regulated and often require collaboration between multiple organizations. They also are resource intensive — it takes roughly $2 billion and about 14 years for a promising therapy to go from the lab to the clinic. This cost may sometimes delay or even stop promising treatments from being tested and, ultimately, reaching patients. VAI partners with multiple organizations both nationally and internationally to streamline the clinical trial process in an effort to move discoveries more quickly from the bench to the bedside.

The Institute’s collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and other leading medical and research organizations has led to several significant clinical trials that could benefit patients looking for improved therapies for colorectal cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia.

One of the first trials to move forward as part of the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) –Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team targets metastatic colorectal cancer — the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women combined in the United States. The Phase ll trial, led by members of the VARI-SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team at Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, involves testing a drug called guadecitabine. Recent findings have shown this drug, which leverages epigenetic processes to increase the efficacy of drug therapies, might be effective in the treatment of colorectal cancer. Conducting the second phase in collaboration with the VARI–SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team gives investigators the ability to increase the trial size and conduct important auxiliary studies.

A trial also is being conducted to evaluate whether a combination of vitamin C with the epigenetic cancer drug decitabine enhances the drug’s ability to stop cancer cell growth and trigger cellular self-destruction, an effect which has been shown in cancer cell lines but must be studied clinically. New data suggests this simple combination drug therapy could improve the effectiveness of current therapies for myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia.

Collaborative partnerships also are helping us make significant progress in understanding Parkinson’s disease. The Linked Clinical Trials initiative, a program spearheaded by The Cure Parkinson’s Trust — a UK-based research charity — and VARI, aims to repurpose medications approved to treat other diseases, which have shown potential as possible therapies for Parkinson’s.

Liraglutide, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes by prompting the release of insulin, which lowers the glucose levels in the blood, is being evaluated by the LCT initiative as a therapy that could protect against damage to the brain cells that are damaged by Parkinson’s disease. Other drugs being investigated include ambroxol, a respiratory drug that displays an ability to protect brain function, and simvastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug that might have applications in Parkinson’s disease treatment because of its ability to control inflammation.

By focusing on existing medications that have passed the thorough drug approval process for other diseases, Linked Clinical Trials significantly could reduce the time and cost associated with getting new therapies to the patients who need them most.

Working together to revolutionize science education

Just as the spirit of collaboration is changing the way we conduct biomedical research and clinical trials, it is directly influencing the way we approach science education. In the past year, Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI) partnered with dozens of school districts and worked directly with teachers and students to facilitate inquiry-based science education programs in West Michigan and beyond.

NexGen Inquiry — an online, science education platform, developed by VAEI — gives teachers and students from every corner of the world access to inquiry-based learning. This model encourages students and teachers to think and act like scientists and creates a proactive, immersive-learning experience. Since the platform’s launch, 2,700 teachers have signed up, and 60,000 student assignments have been delivered through the online portal. Giving frontline educators accessible tools they need to make science education more effective and inspiring is at the heart of NexGen Inquiry’s design. The goal of the platform is not to tell teachers how to teach but rather to help them design methods that encourage dynamic learning, creativity, integrity, scientific practice and an open dialog between students and teachers.

In addition to the Institute’s work with thousands of students and teachers via NexGen Inquiry, VAEI has initiated partnerships with more than 30 Michigan-based school districts – providing teacher development training and inquiry-based science instruction.

Working collaboratively, through online engagement and direct connections with school districts, VAEI gives students and teachers the tools they need to develop a passion for scientific discovery.

A shared responsibility

When Van Andel Institute was founded two decades ago, we had the privilege of working with the best and brightest in biomedical research and science education — individuals and institutions that helped make our early vision into a reality. Today, the Institute continues to collaborate with partners in West Michigan and around the world. These connections and shared responsibility have brought about discoveries that could one day lead to new therapies for cancer and Parkinson’s and revolutionary ways of educating students. Because of these connections, we’ve learned the process of scientific discovery and the pursuit of knowledge flourishes when leaders leverage their resources, connect with others and work together toward the common goal of a happier and healthier world.

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

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