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2022 Spring/Summer Highlights of Hope

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This is the 2022 Spring/Summer edition of Van Andel Institute's Highlights of Hope donor publication.


RESEARCH VAI welcomes six new scientists and their labs In the past year, VAI recruited six new faculty — an achievement that expands our scientific capacity and impact in Grand Rapids and beyond. These exceptional experts, each of whom leads their own lab at the Institute, bring with them a wealth of expertise at the forefront of scientific innovation and discovery. Nick Burton, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Epigenetics Joined VAI from University of Cambridge Dr. Nick Burton explores how our environment, especially microbes, can impact our health and the health of our offspring — even before they are born. His research has extensive implications for understanding how epigenetics contributes to human disease and how the environment we are exposed to today affects not only our own health, but also our children’s. “In the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that an individual’s environment and their epigenetics play a major role in determining whether or not they will go on to develop many different pathologies, ranging from diabetes to autism. We are now beginning to understand the mechanisms underlying many of these observations. At Van Andel Institute, I look forward to working alongside many world-class researchers looking to solve these mechanisms and find new ways to improve human health.” — Dr. Nick Burton Yvonne Fondufe-Mittendorf, Ph.D., Professor Department of Epigenetics Joined VAI from University of Kentucky Dr. Yvonne Fondufe-Mittendorf investigates how environmental factors, such as toxicants, impact our genetic code and contribute to cancer. Her research is illuminating powerful new insights that could influence our understanding of health and disease, providing a path forward for new strategies for cancer prevention and treatment. “Our environment has a profound impact on our health, down to the molecular level. My research addresses some of today’s health challenges by developing a deeper understanding of the mechanisms underpinning this critical relationship. Van Andel Institute is a global center for leading-edge epigenetics research, and I am thrilled to be part of it.” — Dr. Yvonne Fondufe-Mittendorf Stephanie Grainger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Cell Biology Joined VAI from San Diego State University Stem cells give rise to every cell type in the human body and play important roles in health and disease. Dr. Stephanie Grainger seeks to understand how these special cells develop, how they are maintained, and how they can become cancerous, with the goal of developing new strategies for combating cancer. “Traditional cancer therapies do not target the rare cells that initiate cancer growth, and instead take a brute force approach of killing any cells that are growing. This includes the cells in your intestines, skin and hair and is why chemotherapy causes side effects like an upset stomach and hair loss. These rare cells, which behave similarly to a specialized group of cells in our bodies called stem cells, are often able to regrow tumors once therapy is withdrawn. One of the main goals of my research group at VAI is to figure out how these rare cells talk to each other in normal and cancerous conditions. Once we figure that out, we can more effectively kill off these cells that initiate cancer.” — Dr. Stephanie Grainger 2 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE

Sara Nowinski, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming Joined VAI from University of Utah Dr. Sara Nowinski investigates how cells determine the amount of energy needed for everyday life and how they adjust to meet those requirements. Her research has uncovered new insights into the intricate balance between nutrient availability and cellular respiration — both critical components for maintaining health. “Mitochondria are well known for their role in energy production as the ‘powerhouses of the cell,’ but there is still so much we don’t know about how cells control and fine-tune their activity in different situations. I’m incredibly excited to join the Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming at VAI and look forward to the discoveries we will make together.” — Dr. Sara Nowinski Evan Worden, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Structural Biology Joined VAI from Johns Hopkins University Dr. Evan Worden leverages VAI’s powerful suite of cryo-electron microscopes to explore the complex molecular interactions that give rise to cancer. To date, his research has revealed novel insights into poorly understood regulatory elements in the genetic code and illuminated how aberrations in these processes can transform healthy cells into malignant ones. “Our understanding of how epigenetics contributes to cancer has exploded in the last decade. This opened the door for us to use structural biology to answer really detailed questions about how the genetic elements expressed in cancer are regulated. I’m excited to continue this work at Van Andel Institute.” — Dr. Evan Worden Qiang Zhu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Neurodegenerative Science Joined VAI from University of California, San Diego Dr. Qiang Zhu investigates the genetic, epigenetic and cellular factors that lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and frontotemporal dementia. To date, his work has revealed the complex mechanisms underlying the most common genetic cause for both of these diseases — an insight that has provided novel targets for the development of new therapies. “The lack of therapies that impede progression of ALS and frontotemporal dementia is a major gap in patient care. I’m heartened that my research to date has contributed to clinical exploration of potential treatments and am excited to expand my efforts at VAI. The Institute has exceptional research facilities and a highly supportive, collaborative scientific environment. I look forward to teaming up with my colleagues to achieve our shared goal — new, more effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.” — Dr. Qiang Zhu In 2021, VAI was ranked by Nature Index as no. 24 in the Life Sciences category out of the top 100 nongovernmental/nonprofit organizations (up from no. 29 in 2020). VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE | 3

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