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2016 Annual Report

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Challenging Cancer -

Challenging Cancer - Beating the Odds In 2007, Pat Gavin heard the three words that everyone fears—“You have cancer.” A week earlier, the father of four daughters had gone to the doctor for a sore throat. Now, his physician was spelling out disastrous news—a tumor in Gavin’s upper throat was coiled tightly around his trachea, spine and major arteries in his neck. Its location made surgery impossible, leaving few options—either see an oncologist for treatment, which had little chance of working, or start palliative care. As the news sunk in, Gavin’s wife, Mary, asked what he thought. Gavin answered quickly. “I said, ‘It is what it is,’” he recalled. “Now we deal with it and pray.” Gavin took the referral. He was going to fight. The conversation with his oncologist was stark but offered a slight glimmer of hope: A clinical trial had recently opened nearby and Gavin fit the criteria. There were no guarantees that it would work—in fact, it was unlikely given the advanced stage of his cancer—but it could provide valuable insight that might help others down the line. “The decision to participate was very easy for both me and Mary. We wanted to do whatever we could to fight cancer,” Gavin said. “I didn’t think it would work when I signed up for it, but we did it because we hoped it would make an impact on cancer, so maybe our grandkids would never have to face what we were going through.” The experimental approach, which combined radiation and standard chemotherapy with two drugs approved to treat other types of cancer, was grueling. Then, after several months of ups and downs, Gavin’s oncologist shared exciting—and unexpected—news. “He said we had witnessed a miracle thanks to drugs and radiation treatments that worked, a great attitude and loving family, and lots of prayers,” Gavin said. “My cancer was in complete remission.” Translating experience into impact Nearly a decade has passed since Gavin’s initial diagnosis. Some of the experimental therapy that saved his life is now a standard treatment for head and neck cancers. He’s also beaten cancer twice more—malignant melanoma a year-and-half later and prostate cancer three years ago. And he’s dedicated himself to helping other patients and improving clinical trials, working with numerous organizations locally and nationally. In 2014, Gavin was asked to join an exciting new venture— the Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, a paradigm-shifting, collaborative effort that brings together leading scientists, physicians and pharmaceutical companies to compete against cancer rather than each other. By 2016, the team had launched four clinical trials to investigate potentially life-changing therapies for metastatic colorectal cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic myelomonocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. Gavin has been a key part of these efforts by sharing the patient perspective and helping integrate it into trial design. “Everything comes back to the patients—they are the driving motivation for all that we do,” said Dr. Peter Jones, Van Andel Research Institute's (VARI) chief scientific officer and the team’s co-leader. “The team is a connector, a hub for scientific and medical innovation that we hope will lead to new therapies that better treat cancer and give people more years with their families.” Combinations and collaborations Accomplishing this goal will take a team effort, one that is bolstered by the synergy in the team’s collaborative nature and in the types of therapies being studied in its ongoing clinical trials. Called combination therapies, these pairs of drugs have shown promise in laboratory studies by working in tandem to combat cancer on a molecular level. The trials also allow the team to collect critical samples that will inform future studies and therapeutic development. “Pairing drugs together allows us to attack these diseases on multiple fronts, with one drug often priming cancer cells to be more receptive to the other,” said Dr. Stephen Baylin, co-leader of the team and an investigator at Johns Hopkins University and VARI. “These efforts are a direct result of the outstanding collaboration between our team members— each one brings a critical point of view and invaluable resources to the table.” Although much has been accomplished, the team’s work is far from complete. There are new trials being prepared for launch, current trials to enroll and complete, and a mountain of data to analyze, all with the goal of giving patients more and better treatment options. “Cancer is so many different things—there’s no one way of fixing it,” Gavin said. “It’s going to take a concerted and collaborative effort to beat it. Together, we can take on the challenge.” (LEFT TO RIGHT) PAT GAVIN, VARI-SU2C PATIENT ADVOCATE; DR. PETER JONES, VARI'S CHIEF SCIENTIFIC OFFICER AND CO-LEADER OF THE VARI-SU2C EPIGENETICS DREAM TEAM; DR. STEPHEN BAYLIN, CO-LEADER OF THE VARI-SU2C EPIGENETICS DREAM TEAM; AND ANDREA POMA, BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT PROJECT MANAGER. 14 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE ANNUAL REPORT 2016


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