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2014 Winter Highlights of Hope

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  • Andel
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Dr. Stefan Jovinge

Dr. Stefan Jovinge Brings Game-Changing Cardiovascular Research to Grand Rapids Dr. Jovinge and his team had discovered that it was possible for the heart to repair its own tissue. In 2009, the field of cardiovascular research was upended with a paper published in Science Magazine by researchers in Sweden. The paper, authored by Dr. Jovinge, outlined a new way of viewing the regenerative properties of the human heart. Highlights of Hope / Winter 2014 Before the release, it was believed that the cells that create heart muscle tissue might be limited to the number given at the time of birth, and the potential for postnatal cellular regeneration was not seen as a viable treatment for cardiovascular disease. Jovinge’s work with the heart’s cellular building blocks, known as cardiomyocytes, and progenitor cells, which aid with cell differentiation, completely changed the way the medical and academic world views the heart’s potential for reparative therapy. Jovinge and his team had discovered that it was possible for the heart to repair its own tissue. A partnership between Van Andel Institute and Spectrum Health, with significant support from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, recently brought Jovinge to Grand Rapids in order to continue his program focused on cardiovascular research and regenerative medicine. The collaborative program, which began in earnest in January 2014, is comprised of four areas: basic science with a focus on cell engineering, clinical science, bioinformatics and the development of scientific training procedures for interns, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. This program connects Van Andel Institute’s world-renowned intellectual capital and top-tier research facilities with Spectrum Health’s clinical trial and cardiac medicine expertise, creating a perfect atmosphere for Jovinge’s cutting-edge research. “Van Andel Research Institute is truly world-class, and Spectrum Health is among the best in the country when it comes to clinical performance in the cardiovascular area,” said Jovinge. “Spectrum Health has an impressive patient flow and extensive expertise in cardiovascular medicine, and remarkably neighbors Van Andel Research Institute, headquartered here in Grand Rapids. For a clinical scientist like me, there is a great opportunity in having these two organizations work together.” Jovinge views his move to Grand Rapids as one molded in the entrepreneurial spirit and looks forward 08

“The only reparative therapy we have today, if you want new cardiac muscle, is to transplant a new heart. Our line of work is actually aiming at using the competence of your own heart to generate more muscle.” Dr. Stefan Jovinge to building a research program equally grounded in basic research and clinical medicine. The researcher also views this program as a way for both organizations to reap the benefits of proximity and experience. “It’s stimulating for me, and one of my main missions is to get these two organizations together, because what I do is connect basic science to medicine,” said Jovinge. The core of Jovinge’s research in Grand Rapids focuses on unlocking the regenerative codes found in cardiomyocyte and progenitor cells. Through Jovinge’s work, he and his team have uncovered just how diverse and unique cardiomyocytes are in the development and regulation of heart tissue. “One of the misconceptions is that all cardiac muscle is homogenous and not created from different types of cells,” said Jovinge. “It’s like the cells in bone marrow where there are red blood cells and white blood cells; the heart also has different cells that perform different functions.” Through an involved process of identification, Jovinge is able to identify a cell’s nuclei, DNA and RNA and begin fingerprinting the gene expression found in the cell. This process allows the team to identify different types of cardiomyocytes and isolate the cells responsible for regeneration of heart tissue. Once these specific types of cardiomyocytes have been identified, the next step involves identifying how these cells can spur the growth of new heart muscle tissue. “Previously, all the focus has been on injecting cells into the heart, but it is one thing to inject them, the second is getting them to survive and thirdly to get them to integrate and function well together with other cardiomyocytes,” said Jovinge. “The vast majority of these injected cells will die and even if they survive they need to couple to the other cells because cardiomyocytes need to communicate with each other to contract synchronously.” In Jovinge’s research, he aims to identify the cells that are responsible for regeneration, and to understand how to stimulate the regenerative process and encourage cell survival. Globally, cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death for adults, and Jovinge’s research remains one of the most novel approaches to addressing this pressing health issue. The findings from Jovinge’s work have far-reaching implications regarding therapies for those living with cardiovascular disease. Jovinge remains encouraged by the program’s initial discoveries and believes his research could one day provide treatment options that would address the source of cardiovascular disease, rather than current therapies that address symptoms. “The only reparative therapy we have today, if you want new cardiac muscle, is to transplant a new heart,” said Jovinge. “Our line of work is actually aiming at using the competence of your own heart to generate more muscle.” The program, under the direction of Jovinge, is a testament to the collaborative spirit of both Van Andel Institute and Spectrum Health, and the collective desire to bring forth therapies that change the way cardiovascular disease is addressed in the future. For more information on Dr. Jovinge or his work at Van Andel Institute, please visit bit.ly/VAIStefanJovinge 09

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