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2021 Spring/Summer Highlights of Hope

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The 2021 Spring/Summer edition of Van Andel Institute's Highlights of Hope donor publication.


RESEARCH Meet the scientist behind the science: Dr. Michael Henderson Q: MH: In August, VAI welcomed Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Henderson, an expert in Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies, a type of progressive dementia. For Henderson, studying the brain and unraveling its mysteries is a final frontier of sorts, one that holds immense potential for treating these diseases. How would you describe your research to someone without a scientific background? Maintaining a healthy brain is somewhat like maintaining a house. The original structure of the house is like your genes. The house may have a critical weakness (or gene mutation) that won’t matter for years. But eventually, as the house weathers storms and floods and sun and wind, the house wears down. That weakness becomes more important. The brain has a strong, redundant structure to protect it from most damage, but over time, these protections weaken and can be worsened by gene mutations. My research tries to find these Q: MH: Q: MH: weakened areas and identify a way to reinforce them so the brain can continue to function healthily into old age. What made you decide to come to VAI? Critical mass. Science is difficult, and a diversity of perspectives and technical expertise focused on similar goals is needed to move the field forward. VAI has assembled a team of world-renowned experts in neurodegenerative diseases. As an early career researcher, this critical mass of neurodegeneration researchers is especially important to help move my own research program forward. Where do you think research and treatment for Parkinson’s and dementia with Lewy bodies will be in 10 years? Researchers have developed a wide variety of therapies for Parkinson’s and dementia with Lewy bodies over the past decade. It is a very exciting time for therapy because many of these treatments are entering Phase II and III clinical trials. This means that, within a few years, we will learn if these therapies can change the course of disease. We are also getting more sophisticated about how we measure disease progression. In 10 years, we will be closer than ever to disease-modifying treatments. Neurodegenerative diseases are complex and likely start decades before symptoms, so therapies may need to be started very early, or may only treat a subset of patients. That is why pursuing multiple research and treatment strategies is so critical. Learn more about Dr. Henderson and his research at “VAI has assembled a team of world experts in neurodegenerative diseases. As an early career researcher, this critical mass of neurodegeneration researchers is especially important to help move my own research program forward.” — Dr. Michael Henderson 4 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE

Making strides in cancer in Grand Rapids and beyond VAI scientists and collaborators tackle cancer from all angles, from studying its molecular underpinnings to supporting clinical trials designed to find new treatments. Seeking a new test to diagnose pancreatic cancer Pancreatic cancer is a difficult foe and a master of evasion. By the time it is diagnosed, it frequently is far advanced, which limits options and complicates treatment. Adding to the challenge, some pancreatic cancers don’t respond to existing medications. The result often is an agonizing decision: pursue treatment that may or may not work or focus on quality of life. VAI Professor Dr. Brian Haab wants to change this reality. He and his colleagues are developing a simple, experimental blood test that distinguishes pancreatic cancers that respond to treatment from those that do not. This critical distinction could one day guide therapeutic decisions and spare patients with resistant cancers from undergoing unnecessary treatments with challenging side effects. “Knowing which type of pancreatic cancer a person has is critical to implementing the right treatment strategy for each patient,” Haab said. “We hope that our new test, which detects a marker produced by cancer cells of one subtype and not the other, will one day be a powerful tool to help physicians and patients make the best decisions possible.” The experimental test is slated to undergo additional clinical validation. 1 Collaborating on a national initiative against cancer Biospecimens are the bedrock of scientific research — without them, we wouldn’t be able to study cancer or develop new treatments and diagnostics. Last summer, VAI’s Biorepository was awarded a .7 million, two-year subcontract from the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research currently operated by Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc., on behalf of the National Cancer Institute to serve as the biorepository for the Cancer Moonshot Biobank study, a national initiative to transform cancer treatment and prevention through accelerated research. “We are honored to be part of the Cancer Moonshot Biobank study and look forward to doing our part to support research and improve cancer care,” said Dr. Scott Jewell, director of VAI’s Core Technologies and Services, which includes the Institute’s Biorepository. The Cancer Moonshot was launched in 2016 by the Obama Administration. Its strategic aims, determined by a Blue Ribbon Panel of experts, are designed to answer critical scientific and medical questions while ensuring the samples collected represent the diversity of the U.S. population. 2 1 Research reported in this publication was supported by Van Andel Institute; the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award no. U01CA152653 (Haab and Brand) and award no. U01CA226158 (Haab); the Lustgarten Foundation (Tuveson); and the German Research Foundation (Plenker). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the granting organizations. 2 The project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under contract no. HHSN261201500003I, Task Order HHSN26100042 through Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. under subcontract no. 20X062Q. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government. VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE | 5

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