By Brad Kadrich
Ever wonder why researchers seem to be so passionate about their work?
Researchers at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids believe they’ve tracked a gene believed to be part of the cause of pancreatic cancer and one that will lead to earlier detection of the disease.
By adding huge numbers of investigators and increasing budget and facilities, researchers at Michigan State University say they’re making big strides in women’s health issues such as endometriosis and other cancers, as well as women’s health issues related to childbirth.
And, at the University of Michigan, a team of medical researchers has come together under the name Michigan OPEN to study how opioids are being prescribed to surgery patients of all kinds, and to use that knowledge to develop the first-ever prescribing guidelines for surgeons based on what patients actually use.
“We’ve been working on a test for pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms because it’s diagnosed so late,” said David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute, an independent biomedical research organization. “There hasn’t been a good test at all to diagnose it early, and this gives us a chance to do that. By the time it’s detected it’s usually stage four and it’s impossible to treat at that point. This would be a big change for pancreatic cancer treatment.”
The test, Van Andel said, would be like a blood test taken at an annual physical that “would be able to detect it extremely early.”
Van Andel said VAI’s researchers have already accomplished this feat in the lab.
“We’ve been able to prove it out in the lab, with a small populace of patients,” he said. “Now we have to go through the formal process, and go through the whole FDA process, to get it approved.”
‘Passion for it’
It’s only one area where VAI is building a research resume. The institute, established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996, has grown into an organization that supports the work of more than 400 scientists, educators and staff, according to its website.
VAI excels in research into cancer, metabolism issues and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, a subject near-and-dear to the family since VAI founder Jay Van Andel succumbed to it in 2004.
Van Andel said VAI researchers have “discovered the existence” of a protein in the appendix, and now “we have to figure out if there’s a triggering process.”
“If there is, we want to interrupt that process, and that would be the next stage in our research,” he said. “I truly believe we are one of the few global thought leaders when it comes to Parkinson’s research, and we’ve done that on purpose.”
Van Andel said his father’s passing from Parkinson’s is “guiding, entirely, the reasons we’re doing (the research).”
“We have a passion for it,” he said. “We felt it was an area that was grossly underserved. A lot of the attention goes to cancer, so a lot of these other – we call them ‘orphan’ diseases – don’t get a lot of attention. We felt we could make a difference.”
VAI has been making a difference since joining – helping to create, really – the “Medical Mile,” which started in the mid-1990s with discussions with then-Gov. John Engler about creating the Life Sciences Corridor.
The idea was to tie VAI together with the three universities – University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State – to “work together instead of competing with each other.”
“Since we made that decision, there’s been about $2.5 billion of infrastructure built around us,” Van Andel said. “I believe we were a catalyst … bringing the MSU Medical School to Grand Rapids … by adding all those pieces to the puzzle, we began the journey.”
Michigan State University
MSU not only joined in the Medical Mile effort but has been involved in a major expansion of its medical research facility over the last five years. According to Dr. Doug Gage, the school’s assistant vice president for research and innovation, MSU has seen “significant growth” in the Grand Rapids area.
In particular, Gage said, the school opened two buildings in the Grand Rapids Research Center, a brand new, $100 million research facility.
With the new buildings come more researchers. Gage said the school has hired more than 100 new faculty in the STEM and biomedical research areas as part of an initiative called the Global Impact Initiative, and 86 faculty in a variety of areas ranging from genomics to cancer, biology, Alzheimer’s and, like VAI, work in Parkinson’s.
“The opportunity to collaborate with Spectrum Health and the (other) universities was a great opportunity,” Gage said. “We have a great partnership with Spectrum, and with Children’s and a number of hospitals along the Medical Mile.”
The school is also heavy into research into women’s health issues and neuro-developmental conditions such as autism.
“The value of Spectrum Health and having the medical community nearby can’t be underestimated,” Esselman said. “It’s a huge value to us.”
With some 30 principal investigators – and 6-10 staff people for each – MSU has a “few hundred people in the new building,” according to Dr. Walt Esselman, MSU’s senior associate dean for research, those are focused on “a huge effort” to tackle neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Gage pointed to another initiative – the Institute for Quantitative Health, Sciences and Engineering – centered around biomedical engineering and imaging. They have an “experienced, well-known investigator” in Christopher Contag from Stanford, who Gage called “one of the world leaders in biomedical imaging” which, he said, covers everything from the molecular level to organ-level imaging.
“The (institute) has a very strong emphasis on imaging,” Gage said. “We’ve been able to recruit 20 faculty from around the country, including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, etc. It’s a great opportunity to pioneer biomedical engineering with a focus on imaging.”
According to Gage and Esselman, MSU has been making “major advancements” in research the last half-dozen years. Expenditures have increased almost 40% in the last few years.
“It’s another example of bridging the gap between clinical science and basic education,” Gage said. “We don’t have a university hospital, so most of our work is done in partnership with other hospitals. There’s a new McLaren Hospital on our campus; Karmanos (Cancer Center) will also be represented. It provides a great opportunity for collaboration.”
University of Michigan
Like its educational brethren, the University of Michigan puts a lot of effort – and faith – into its research program. The school spends some $1.5 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – on research of all kinds.
About 40% of that – some $640 million – is spent by the U-M medical school on research. But the medical school isn’t the only one involved.
“There is health and medical research (going on) in some other areas of the university, too,” said Kara Gavin, the school’s research & policy media relations manager. “I think it would be entirely safe to say that more than half of all research at U-M is related to medicine and health.”
U-M’s research facilities and staff are significant enough to draw a ton of federal funding, as well. According to Gavin, of all the institutions in the country that receive funding from the National Institutes of Health, which funds the vast majority of the nation’s medical research, U-M’s medical school ranked 12th in dollars received.
How important is medical research at U-M? According to the school’s website, there are 2.8 million square feet of lab space. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Gavin. Some research – clinical trials and health services research, for instance – doesn’t require lab space.
Gavin said the school is undertaking some 1,800 clinical studies, allowing patients and community members to volunteer to work with school researchers to test new treatments going on at any given time. And health services research “crunches massive amounts of data” about health care, she said, to find new things, including “what’s working and what’s not.”
“Another measure of the importance of research at U-M is the number of times every year our researchers share their knowledge with the world by publishing findings in medical research journals so that others can learn from and use them,” said Gavin, who pointed out that, in fiscal 2018, U-M Medical School researchers published 6,791 papers.
In Michigan Medicine, the name for U-M’s academic medical center (which includes the medical school), more than 10,000 faculty and staff are involved in research. According to Gavin, there are more than 3,000 research projects going on at any given time.
One of the more exciting projects going on, Gavin said, is the U-M Precision Health initiative, a major effort launched in late 2017 that brings together researchers from a broad range of scientific and health disciplines across U-M, to “advance health research and improve clinical care by harnessing ‘big data.’
“The initiative includes everything from building big databases of genetic and clinical information for researchers to use in their research, to funding specific projects, to a graduate certificate training program that will train people to work in the emerging field of precision health,” Gavin said.
Tackling the opioid crisis
Of course, the school has had a lot of research success, with one recent example, Gavin said, designed to “tackle a major problem in our society right now” – the opioid epidemic. Specifically, it’s figuring how to reduce the over-prescribing of opioid painkillers to patients having surgery across our state and nation, to reduce the risk that they’ll develop opioid dependence, while still making sure they get good pain control.
A team of U-M medical researchers has come together under the name Michigan OPEN to study how opioids are being prescribed to surgery patients of all kinds, and to use that knowledge to develop the first-ever prescribing guidelines for surgeons based on what patients actually use.
“They’ve helped surgery teams statewide actually put those guidelines into practice, and help surgery patients understand opioids better,” Gavin said. “The team has also planned drug take-back events across the state that make it easier for patients to dispose of any leftover opioid pills so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.”