Parkinsons research results in collaboration

January 3, 2012
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As we welcome the new year, I’d also like to welcome someone to Van Andel Institute whose presence in West Michigan is significant in several ways.

After a lengthy international search, Patrik Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned expert in the field of Parkinson’s and neurodegenerative disease research, began work as the endowed chair of the Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Laboratory, a state-of-the-art lab named after my father, the VAI and Amway founder who died from the effects of Parkinson’s in 2004.

Dr. Brundin’s work has made and promises to continue to make a major difference in the world of Parkinson’s disease; his recruitment says much about the degree of international respect and attention accorded the West Michigan biomedical research community, and his eagerness to work with our partners on the Medical Mile marks another large step in our collaborative efforts to find a cure for this dreaded disease.

Dr. Brundin is professor of neuroscience at the Faculty of Medicine of Lund University in Sweden, where he will maintain his lab, the Neuronal Survival Unit. In Europe, he has coordinated numerous prestigious, multidisciplinary research networks devoted to Parkinson's research — and has been honored as one of the most cited researchers in the field of neuroscience in the past 20 years.

His plans for VAI call for the development of five research groups with about 80 researchers to be phased in over the next five years. The lab will study neurodegenerative disease in general with a particular emphasis on biomarker discovery, disease modification and the development of regenerative therapies for Parkinson’s disease — therapies that not only halt the spread of Parkinson’s, but that also show promise of turning back its deleterious effects.

As the recruitment of an international scientist of Dr. Brundin’s caliber demonstrates, the region has begun to attract its share of national and international attention and funding.

In 2009, Michigan State University announced that it had recruited an internationally recognized team of Parkinson’s disease researchers from the University of Cincinnati. That team brought with it a $6.2 million Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease research grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health. That same year, Saint Mary's Health Care opened its Hauenstein Center to treat patients with Parkinson's disease and to provide a full array of additional neuroscience services.

Last July, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research announced an award of $400,000 to MSU and VARI to investigate the drug Fasudil, which has the potential to be the first to not only alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms but also halt the disease’s progression.

And in August, the MSU College of Human Medicine collaborated with VAI and Saint Mary’s to bring the Davis Phinney Foundation’s Victory Summit to Grand Rapids, bringing national Parkinson’s experts to the city to share the latest advances in science and healthy living for more than 800 individuals with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers.

Dr. Brundin, who has spent most of his professional career in Europe, has said that he shares the opinion that West Michigan is poised to become an internationally recognized center of Parkinson’s research.

One of the first things he told me when we met was that he had dedicated himself to the study of Parkinson’s because his own father had succumbed to the disease. As we spoke, we began to feel a sense of coincidence and destiny when we realized that our fathers had both been born in 1924. On my part, that began to feel like a sense of kinship and awesome potential as I realized that Dr. Brundin shared my philosophy on battling the disease: You can get angry about it or you can do something about it.

As both a medical doctor and a research Ph.D., Dr. Brundin knows how vitally important it is to take discoveries from the lab and turn them into improved treatments with the power to impact the lives of patients. For that reason, our research and clinical partnerships with MSU’s College of Human Medicine and Saint Mary’s Hauenstein Center will continue to be especially important.

MSU investigators, whose labs are located within VAI, will now have the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Brundin’s team and together develop a world-class Parkinson’s disease enterprise that spans basic, translational and clinical research. Specialists in neurological disorders at the Hauenstein Center and a significant number of their patients can now be found mere blocks from those labs, a situation that potentially enhances and streamlines the clinical trial process.

The Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Laboratory itself is a fine example of the collaborative approach that thrives in West Michigan. Endowed by generous gifts from Richard and Helen DeVos, from each of their four children and from the Frey Foundation, the laboratory is located in VAI’s Phase II, our 240,000-square-foot, $178 million expansion that opened in late 2009.

Finally, the synergistic opportunities of the Medical Mile have enabled West Michigan to attract another Brundin: Patrik’s wife, Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., an accomplished researcher and associate professor of experimental psychiatry at Lund University, has accepted an appointment at the MSU College of Human Medicine in the department of translational science and molecular medicine.

Were it not for the existence of each other and the critical mass that now exists on the Medical Mile, both VAI and MSU might have missed out on world-class candidates who now bring their talents to enhance each organization and continue the growth of scientific excellence in the region.

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

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