Life Sciences Can Reignite Economy

March 26, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The state of Michigan would be in a better position to overcome its economic challenges if it were to put politics aside and work on strengthening both public and private research collaborations in the life science and biotech industries.

So said David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute (VAI), in an address before the Grand Rapids Economic Club Monday at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

While jobs in many manufacturing sectors continue to drift overseas, the biotech and life sciences industries are flourishing, he said.

Van Andel said the state could derive both health and economic benefits by bolstering its leadership position in the life sciences.

He backed that with facts and figures from a study commissioned by the VAI, University of Michigan and Michigan State and Wayne State universities and released last week by Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group (AEG).

The study focused only on those sectors “directly involved in biological research and development, the production of products required for advanced science and medical procedures and the practice of advanced medical treatment.”

According to the study:

  • Since 1999, a total of 74 new life sciences ventures have been established statewide.

  • By 2001, life sciences establishments in Michigan numbered 843 and employed 31,778.

  • From 1998 to 2001, employment in Michigan’s life sciences industry grew more than 12.5 percent, while total employment statewide grew 2.3 percent during the same period.

  • In 2001, total fiscal contribution of the life sciences industry in Michigan was just under $650 million.

Michigan’s Life Sciences Corridor is considered “the most novel and successful economic development program in the history of Michigan” and is a model both envied and emulated by other states, Van Andel said. Nationwide, he added, Michigan’s life sciences sector has grown faster than that of any other state.

“But our commitment to the corridor must be unwavering. We will not maintain our leadership position by default. Too many other states and regions are vying for the same industry and the same jobs.”

He noted that 40 states already have initiatives in place to attract and retain life sciences employers.

The AEG study revealed that the life sciences industry, which includes about 22 major occupations, pays an average of $16,000 more a year than the U.S. mean annual wage.

“Michigan wants these jobs,” Van Andel stressed. “Michigan wants this industry. Michigan desperately needs this industry.”

Van Andel used the words of George Vande Woude, Ph.D., director of research at the Van Andel Research Institute, to underscore the importance of genetic studies like those currently under way in VARI’s 17 laboratories.

“We now have a new paradigm for treating cancer. We target the gene responsible for the disease. In the past, we could only treat with toxic drugs, which, often, were not effective enough. In fact, we are building a whole new war chest of tools and weapons to diagnose and treat cancer. And, I would add, to predict and prevent the disease.”

The hope is that with a better understanding of the role genes play in determining diseases, doctors will be able to focus more on prevention and less on treatment, and pharmaceuticals can be targeted to individual genotypes.

Van Andel said that by the year 2010, it’s expected that 50 percent of Americans will have cancer in their lifetimes, yet the federal government spends only about $3 billion a year on cancer research.

The AEG study concludes that government support plays a vital role in the industry, particularly the initial research and development phases, he pointed out.

“Venture capitalists cannot provide funding for an industry until it’s clear that profits are going to be on the horizon. As a result, life sciences employers are likely to locate in states that offer incentives to conduct such research.

“Our state leaders must demonstrate to employers — and that means both current and prospective employers — that Michigan’s commitment to the life sciences is not going to waver.”

That commitment, he added, has to include long-term funding initiatives and focus on building a well-educated work force.

Funding to the Life Sciences Corridor has been reduced two years running, and since creation of the Technology Tri-Corridor has been spread across three sectors rather than one.

Of the $25 million in corridor funding this year, the life sciences sector gets $15 million and the automotive technology and homeland security technology sectors share $10 million.

Each of those sectors deserves individual focus, Van Andel said, but life sciences is a major piece of the state’s overall economic framework and it deserves singular focus and singular support.

The VAI has attracted more than $25.6 million in government grants and nearly $3 million in private gifts since 2000, its first year of operation.

Van Andel highlighted some of the research, saying VARI scientists:

  • Are working to identify genes that seem to inhibit effective treatment in some multiple myeloma patients.

  • Have discovered two proteins that work in concert to trigger the spread of cancerous tumors.

  • Are developing a potential therapy for treating melanoma by inhibiting signals within cancer cells.

  • Have identified genes that can indicate favorable or unfavorable patient outcomes for certain types of pediatric and adult cancers, such as kidney and testicular cancer.
  • Are studying proteins that can be used as early indicators of pancreatic cancer and developing new therapies for early detection of pancreatic cancer.

  • Are collaborating on a gene expression study to determine why 10 percent of testicular cancer patients are resistant to current treatment.

  • Have sub-classified kidney cancer through gene profiling to predict patient outcome.

One year ago, the institute launched a tumor tissue donation program in partnership with nine hospitals to develop a ready supply of tissue for cancer research.

Through collaboration with DeVos Children’s Hospital, the institute has been collecting tumor tissue samples to aid in its pediatric kidney cancer research.

It also has teamed with the children’s hospital to train the next generation of pediatric oncologists and hematologists through a three-year fellowship program that includes 18 months of training at DeVos Children’s and 18 months of research at VARI.

The goal, Van Andel said, is to become the foremost pediatric cancer research center in the state.

“Given the fact that the institute has already built a reputation as one of the top kidney cancer research centers in the world, we believe this goal is truly attainable.”

In conjunction with the Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology program, a community cancer research program of the National Cancer Institute, VARI also has launched its Stage II Clinical Trial in the testing of a new pancreatic cancer treatment.

Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. is funding the trial.

Additionally, as part of the Core Technology Alliance, the institute is collaborating with MSU, U-M and Wayne State “to provide a network of advanced technology facilities for Michigan researchers,” he said.       

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