Become A Partner In The Life Sciences Industry

December 27, 2007
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As West Michigan gains international recognition as a center of excellence in biomedical research and education, the rapidly emerging needs of the life sciences industry require the expertise of leaders in fields such as engineering, manufacturing, law, health sciences, public policy and philanthropy — to name just a few.

My challenge to the visionaries of this region is to consider ways to contribute to and capitalize on the growth of the life sciences industry by anticipating and meeting its needs.

We, together, must meet this challenge if we hope to restructure our local economy and become a globally relevant player in the life sciences industry. There is, however, an even more compelling reason for meeting this challenge.

What would it take for you to retool your equipment, enhance your legal practice, or change the current focus of your philanthropic giving if doing so had the potential to improve the health and well-being of humankind? What if you could save thousands of lives, or hundreds, or perhaps just one? There is a young girl who may very well be alive today because the life sciences industry is flourishing in West Michigan. Because of strict privacy laws, we only know her as Patient No. 7, her coldly official identifier. As I discuss some recent developments in the life sciences in West Michigan, keep these questions and Patient No. 7 in mind.

I wrote last July in Health Quarterly about the XB Bioinformatics System, a highly advanced database and set of analytical tools developed by the laboratory of Dr. Craig P. Webb at Van Andel Institute, designed on the premise that cancers — like humans — have unique genetic characteristics. Using XB, researchers and physicians can now utilize a molecular profile of one person's tumor and integrate that information with the individual's genetic profile, health history and other relevant information. They then compare that profile to a database of drugs, searching for the therapy most likely to be effective.

Since the publication of that article, this technology has been brought to bear in very direct and life-changing ways through the Institute's Compassionate Care Protocol, a groundbreaking study in personalized molecular medicine undertaken in conjunction with several clinical partners including Spectrum Health, which targets a patient population whose diseases have progressed beyond standard treatment options.

Though anecdotal, the results of the Compassionate Care Protocol have been promising. By using XB to pair a patient's tumor with a personalized treatment option, the study is providing hope to some who once had very little. Several patients from the first proof-of-concept study group showed response to treatment: a 6-year-old boy with sarcoma of the kidney remains stable, a 63-year-old man with lung cancer has shown a partial response to the treatment, and Patient No. 7, a 15-year-old girl with a highly aggressive type of leukemia, is currently in remission. The study will continue on to Phase II in 2008 with the hope of including up to 200 local patients.

Although in this article I touch on the new frontiers of life science and the challenges we face as an industry and as a community, its most compelling theme is finally the story of one life, the life of someone we know only as Patient No. 7. She recently celebrated her birthday, excels in school, plays the piano, and is now cancer-free. That wasn't the case six months ago. As the chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute, which funded the research that led to this study, when I hear the story of Patient No. 7, I am deeply satisfied that the study was much more than just a sound investment.

My resolution for the upcoming year is to continue to work to transform the community of West Michigan and the life sciences industry in the 21st century. As you work to retool your company's equipment, enhance your legal practice, change the focus of your research or decide on your funding priorities for the upcoming year, what is your resolution?

The challenge to all of us will be to see clearly that we are rapidly evolving away from a reactive standard of health care toward a more proactive approach exemplified by what has become commonly known as "personalized medicine." My challenge to you as stakeholders in this new and evolving landscape is to get in the game, identify a niche, meet a need and become a partner in the growth of the life sciences industry in West Michigan.

Finally, and most importantly, as we look ahead to the myriad challenges of the new century, as we consider ways to contribute to and capitalize on the growth of the life sciences in West Michigan, and as each of us carefully considers a resolution for the upcoming year, let us keep uppermost in mind the human consequences of our actions. HQX

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

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