What do you think of when hearing “Grand Rapids, Michigan”?
— Former furniture manufacturing capital?
— Childhood home of President Jerry Ford?
— Rustbucket city impacted by Detroit’s declining auto industry?
All of these descriptions are true, but the more current and accurate description is:
–Major medical research and education center.
I learned about this surprising new description when I visited family in Grand Rapids in April. Turns out my cousin, himself a successful businessman and civic activist, is on the board of the Van Andel Institute. Van Andel Institute (VAI), a medical research facility focusing on cancer and Parkinson’s, is one of the jewels of the “Medical Mile” in downtown Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids has been blessed with not only the civic leadership to diversify from furniture and autos to medical research, but the money — private and public — to fund this vision.
Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, late founders of Amway, were a significant part of the enlightened private money. “Van Andel” and “DeVos” pop up all over Grand Rapids: Van Andel Institute, Van Andel Museum, DeVos Children’s Hospital, DeVos Place (convention center), DeVos Performance Hall, and here is a statue of Jay Van Andel in front of Van Andel Arena.
After Jay Van Andel died from the effects of Parkinson’s in 2004, the Van Andel Institute did a $178 million expansion of its Parkinson’s research lab in 2009. Today his son, David Van Andel, is chairman and CEO of VAI, saying “‘You can get angry or you can do something about it.'”
Significantly, VAI’s lead Parkinson’s researcher, Dr. Patrik Bundin, also had a father who died of Parkinson’s. Dr. Brundin, considered an international authority on Parkinson’s, leads research with successes like the following:
— A Van Andel Institute scientist, Sok Kean Khoo, was able to identify a molecular biomarker in blood plasma that may one day be used to develop a blood test for Parkinson’s. Finding an objective way to diagnose Parkinson’s is a “Holy Grail” of PD research. Khoo had previously done cancer research at VAI and wondered if she could apply a cancer research technique on Parkinson’s blood samples, looking for tiny molecules called microRNA. Khoo was able to find a panel of four microRNA that was distinctive to the Parkinson’s patients.
–Scientists under the direction of Dr. Brundin published a study detailing how Parkinson’s disease spreads through the brain. This model has never before been identified so clearly in a living organism.
–VAI organized a symposium Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease, a gathering of some of the world’s most noted experts in Parkinson’s disease from nearly a dozen nations.
— Researchers under the direction of Dr. Brundin announced discovery of a new stem cell in the adult brain. These cells can proliferate and form several different cell types – most importantly, they can form new brain cells. Scientists hope to take advantage of the finding to develop methods to heal and repair disease and injury in the brain.