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2014 Winter Highlights of Hope

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“The reason we do this

“The reason we do this work is to impact people’s lives. When a patient comes up to me and says, ‘you’re my hero’ because they are using a therapy I have been working on, that is more exciting than anything that could happen. I want this amazing gift the Van Andel family has given to make an impact on people’s lives.” Dr. Peter A. Jones Van Andel Institute’s Director of Research and Chief Scientific Officer Highlights of Hope / Winter 2014 from embryonic stem cells into specific tissues. Dr. Jones discovered that the drug 5azaC was a potent inhibitor of methylation and was actually altering the patterns of DNA in the cellular tissue. This groundbreaking research discovery was the light bulb moment that would transform Jones’ career as a researcher and bring forth an exciting new area in scientific research called epigenetics. Epigenetics: The Turning Point Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity which are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Enzymatic on/off switches that are layered on top of the human genome control how genes will be expressed. Epigenetic functions can be manipulated by outside environmental factors, such as chemicals or certain drugs. The study of epigenetics is an exciting new ground for researchers like Jones who see it playing an important role in the treatment of cancer and other diseases. “I think epigenetics is important because most of the research focus until now has been on the genetics of cancer and disease. In the last ten years it has been clear that epigenetics plays a very important role in the development of human cancer,” Jones said. “What that means is that genes that frequently get mutated or broken so they don’t work might be switched off by these epigenetic switches.” These ‘switched off’ genes can often lead to cancer, and Jones is interested in how they can be manipulated and how once-damaged cells can be epigenetically repaired. “Epigenetics has a profound impact on cancer, disease therapy and prevention because we now understand that changes in genes that might cause cancer can be reversed,” Jones said. “If you have a mutation, it is difficult to reverse it in the cancer cell, but you can switch on genes that have been switched off, and that’s why I think epigenetics is an important way to think about cancer and how it’s going to be treated.” A Center of Excellence Jones brings to Van Andel Institute a history of institutional leadership experience, including his role as the Director of the University of Southern California Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, and as a leading member of the International Human Epigenome Consortium, an organization focused on mapping thousands of human epigenomes in order to better understand epigenetics’ role in cancer and chronic illnesses. This experience will serve Jones well as he begins to work with Van Andel Institute’s leadership and staff, builds on the Institute’s cancer and Parkinson’s disease research and develops a new focus for future research. It is Jones’ hope that Van Andel Institute becomes known as a leader in basic and translational epigenetic research. Jones posits that a tightened focal point, centered on epigenetics, gives the Institute a unique and powerful identity in the scientific marketplace of ideas. “I think Van Andel Research Institute would benefit from an additional focus on epigenetics,” Jones said. “I think the Institute has the potential to be known as a strong-house of epigenetics in the world.” This new focus on epigenetics includes a concentration on translational research that could lead to epigenetic therapies for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Jones 06

elieves this focus is in keeping with Van Andel Institute’s tradition of supporting basic and translational research, and views epigenetics as a way to strengthen the Institute’s diverse research portfolio. “I want to make the Institute a hub for basic research and translational epigenetic therapies that will encompass cancer and neurodegenerative disease research,” Jones said. “Epigenetics’ role in cancer is something I have spent a good deal of time working on, but I am also looking forward to working with Dr. Patrik Brundin and his team in the Laboratory for Translational Parkinson’s Disease Research to explore the role epigenetics might play in Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.” The concept of collaboration is going to play a significant role in Jones’ strategy of creating a focus on epigenetics at the Institute. The notion of collaboration is something Jones has cultivated throughout his career, working on diverse teams of researchers, geneticists, pathologists, biostatisticians, chemists, informaticists, oncologists, surgeons and specialists. At the nucleus of Jones’ concept is an epigenetics consortium, bringing intellectual capital and new energy to the Institute. “Initially, we are going to develop a consortium of five academic institutions - four in the U.S. and one outside of the U.S. - which will carry on the work of developing epigenetic therapies that can be applied to human beings,” Jones said. This consortium of experts will utilize Van Andel Institute as a hub to meet, strategize and source funding for research and targeted clinical trials. This spirit of collaboration is inherent in the innovative, interdisciplinary approach to modern science that Jones embraces. Jones aims to build collaborative relationships with national and international academic and research institutions. In addition to collaborative relationships, attracting top-level talent to the Institute is another of Jones’ goals for the near future. As Director of Research and Chief Scientific Officer, Jones hopes to increase Van Andel Institute’s name recognition in the scientific community. While general knowledge of the Institute is important, Jones understands that the Institute’s name must be elevated first in the scientific community by leveraging significant research discoveries and scientific impact. Van Andel Institute researchers like Dr. Jeff MacKeigan, Associate Professor and Head, Laboratory of Systems Biology, are excited about the future under Jones’ leadership. “Dr. Jones is a world-renowned researcher with tremendous scientific vision, and with his leadership at the helm we will continue to build on existing research initiatives, explore genomic strategies for innovative treatments and position ourselves to impact human disease,” MacKeigan said. A Great Gift Van Andel Institute’s significance in the world of biomedical research is something Jones feels very strongly about. When asked about the philanthropic vision of the Institute’s founders, Jay and Betty Van Andel, Jones states that they have given the world of science a ‘great gift,’ one that can have a lasting, powerful impact on the lives of patients and the course of human health. “The reason we do this work is to impact people’s lives. When a patient comes up to me and says, ‘you’re my hero’ because they are using a therapy I have been working on, that is more exciting than anything that could happen. I want this amazing gift the Van Andel family has given to make an impact on people’s lives.” For more information on Dr. Jones, please visit bit.ly/WelcomeDrJones 07

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