13 months ago

20th Anniversary Highlights of Hope

  • Text
  • Hope
  • Institute
  • Scientific
  • Highlights
  • Epigenetics
  • Scientists
  • Michigan


EPIGENETICS DR. PETER JONES AND DAVID VAN ANDEL ON STAGE AT DR. JONES' PRESS CONFERENCE IN 2014. BUILDING MOMENTUM AT THE EPICENTER OF EPIGENETICS The first time Dr. Peter Jones saw Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture, Life, suspended in the Institute's lobby, he was inspired. In it, he saw something others did not. Tucked in amongst the ocean-blue glass orbs of its six-foot-tall helix were red spheres reminiscent of the way chemical marks that help control genes attach to DNA. It immediately resonated with Jones, who is a superstar in epigenetics, a burgeoning field that holds untold promise for finding new ways to treat cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases. Jones took it as a sign—epigenetics was in the Institute’s DNA. It just needed to be expressed. Charting a New Course In 2014, Jones packed up 37 years of research and moved from Los Angeles to Grand Rapids to become the Institute’s chief scientific officer. He had spent much of those four decades at the University of Southern California, where he led the university’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and helped revolutionize the understanding of how our genes work. A renowned scientist and leader, Jones could see the potential and the promise, not only to put Van Andel Research Institute on the map, but most importantly, to save lives through innovative research, strong collaborations and cutting-edge clinical trials. “It was a rare chance to do something really special,” Jones said. “Thanks to the exceptional generosity of the Van Andel family and the outstanding scientific foundations built by Dr. George Vande Woude, the Institute was in a position that few organizations are lucky enough to experience. So we set our goals high. When people say Van Andel Research Institute, we want them to say epigenetics, and when people say epigenetics, we want them to say Van Andel Research Institute." A Matter of Identity Every cell in the body has almost the exact same DNA, yet the cells that comprise us are vastly different. What causes a brain cell to be a brain cell? Or a muscle cell to be a muscle cell? The answer is epigenetics. Literally meaning “above genetics,” epigenetics overlays the genetic code and determines when genes should be switched “on” or “off,” ultimately affecting cell type and function. And, like genetics, when epigenetic processes go awry—when genes are inappropriately turned off or on—the result can be disease, such as cancer or a myriad of other illnesses. Epigenetics is 24 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE

(PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATORS, LEFT TO RIGHT) DRS. SCOTT ROTHBART, PETER JONES, HUI SHEN, PETER LAIRD, GERD PFEIFER, PIROSKA SZABÓ, STEFAN JOVINGE AND STEVEN J. TRIEZENBERG. a growing field that presents an excellent opportunity for treating some of the biggest threats to human health. Jones knew epigenetics was one area where the Institute could truly become the best of the best. When he arrived in Grand Rapids, he set the Institute on an ambitious new course—to become a world-renowned hub for epigenetics research and in doing so, to find new ways to better treat cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases. “Patients don’t have the time to wait and neither do we,” Jones said. “We have the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.” There hasn’t been much waiting since Jones arrived in 2014. The number of faculty has grown dramatically from 23 to 33 investigators, many with a focus on epigenetics. Reflecting the rise of Big Data, VARI has massively upgraded its computing power and technological capabilities to support large-scale genomic, epigenomic and structural studies aimed at unraveling the molecular underpinnings of health and “Patients don't have the time to wait and neither do we. We have the opportunity to make a real difference in people's lives.” - Dr. Peter Jones CONTINUED ON PG 26 > VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE | 25

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