Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

March 27, 2007
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In late February, six representatives of the Van Andel Institute — both scientists and business executives — traveled to Singapore to sign a $1.2 million research agreement aimed at improving treatments for several deadly forms of cancer. From there, the group continued on to Nanjing, China, to visit a cancer research lab that we established in 2003 in partnership with the Nanjing Medical University.

I will pose a similar question today to that which I posed in an October 2006 “Vital Signs” column when discussing the importance of a scientific symposium held in Grand Rapids: Why are these collaborative arrangements significant for West Michigan? Despite the very different nature and location of these initiatives, the answer is the same. It is significant for the people of West Michigan for the reason that it is significant for people worldwide — because collaboration is the key to advancement of scientific research. When scientists come together to share their findings, explore yet-to-be-answered questions, and collaborate on a vision for the future, the quest for a cure is advanced exponentially.

Specifically, the agreement we signed in Singapore establishes the National Cancer Centre, Singapore (NCCS)–Van Andel Research Institute Translational Research Program at the NCCS headquarters. This three-year initiative will focus on the biology behind varying drug responses in Asian versus non-Asian patients with certain types of cancer. Specifically, we will be looking at those cancers that disproportionately affect the Asian population but are rare, and therefore difficult to study, in the U.S.

Because we will have access to larger patient populations and shared discoveries, we will be able to conduct multi-site clinical trials, expand the reach of our research findings and, ultimately, shorten the time of the drug development process.

The collaboration with the Nanjing Medical University is intended to investigate the benefits of using antibodies to assist with the delivery of tumor-killing medications. It’s thought that this delivery system may reduce toxic side effects and improve therapeutic efficacy of such therapies.

Not only does this collaboration include the sharing of antibody research and clinical investigations, it also provides opportunity for select doctoral candidates from Nanjing Medical University to work and train in VAI labs for a period of one to two years.

Both of these partnerships are reflective of the Van Andel Research Institute’s founding commitment to work collaboratively with scientists throughout the world. This commitment stems from the belief that science has no borders. Such partnerships grow from our understanding that we can accomplish far more in cancer research when we share knowledge and work together toward treatments and toward a cure. This is true both internationally and right here at home in West Michigan.

We trust that, one day, the work recently begun in these labs thousands of miles from Grand Rapids will lead to discovery, to treatment, to healing and to the alleviation of human suffering in our own community. To paraphrase a line from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Androcles and the Lion,” we are members one of another; you cannot help your neighbor without helping yourself.

This is not an abstract dream. Each of us at the Van Andel Institute has deep personal motivation to succeed in the specific challenges laid out before our researchers in these labs. In 2004, Dr. Han-Mo Koo, a beloved and brilliant scientific investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute, died of NK/T cell lymphoma. Two years later, a long-time friend and trustee of the Van Andel Institute, Dr. Christian Helmus, succumbed to bile duct cancer. Both of these diseases are rare and, therefore, difficult to study in the U.S. They will be among those under investigation at the NCCS-VARI Translational Research Program.

The familiar saying “keep your eyes on the prize” tells us that, no matter how great the challenge, we must focus on the outcome. If that prize is valuable enough, we will be willing to overcome all obstacles and challenges set before us. I will be proud, one day, to sit down with the children of Dr. Koo and Dr. Helmus and tell them that our collaborative work with committed scientists throughout the world has led to effective treatments or cures for the cancers that took the lives of their fathers. Whether we are faced by failed attempts or institutional barriers or challenges of distance and time, it is vital that we partner both here and abroad to obtain that prize.

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

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