VAI Voice

Official blog of Van Andel Institute
28 Dec 2018

10 exciting things that happened at VAI in 2018

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As we gear up for a busy new year, we’re taking a look back at 10 stand-out moments from 2018.

Finding a possible starting point for Parkinson’s

It’s safe to say that when most people think of Parkinson’s disease, the appendix is not the first thing that comes to mind. But that may be changing, thanks to a groundbreaking report published by VAI scientists in October that pinpoints the appendix as a possible starting point for the disease, which affects seven to 10 million people worldwide. The discovery opens up exciting new avenues for investigating new ways to slow or stop disease progression, something no current treatment can do. Read all about it here.

Growing our scientific capacity

The past year has been one of tremendous growth for VAI. In all, we’ve welcomed eight new faculty and their labs.

  • José Brás investigates how variations in our genes impact the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies.
  • Rita Guerreiro investigates genomic contributors to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
  • Russell Jones investigates metabolism at the cellular level to understand how it affects cell behavior and health, with a specific eye on cancer and the immune system. By revealing how cancer cells use metabolic processes to fuel their growth and spread, he hopes to develop new treatments that help patients by changing the standard of care for cancer.
  • Connie Krawczyk investigates the links between metabolism, epigenetics and the immune system, with the goal of understanding how they work together to keep us healthy and, when things go wrong, to promote disease.
  • Heidi Lempradl investigates how the dietary choices of parents may impact the health of their offspring in the hopes of translating her findings into new ways to prevent disease and create a healthier future.
  • J. Andrew Pospisilik seeks to understand how we become whom we become, and how our disease susceptibility is defined from early on in life, even before conception, with the long-term goal of being able to predict lifelong health outlook at birth.
  • Xiaobing Shi investigates the mechanisms that regulate DNA and gene expression in an effort to better understand how they impact cancer development.
  • Hong Wen investigates the fundamental mechanisms of pediatric cancers caused by dysregulation of epigenetic regulators, in hopes of developing new, improved therapies for these devastating diseases.

Investigating the engines that keep life moving

Metabolism fuels each and every function in the body, from digesting food to ensuring the heart has enough energy to beat. That’s why this year VAI established a comprehensive research program dedicated to better understanding metabolic processes and how they contribute to health and disease. Its goal? To develop scientifically driven strategies for promoting health, and preventing and treating diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and diabetes. Read more about the program here.

Creating a STEAM-focused conference for educators 

VAEI hosted its first Science on the Grand conference, which brought almost 200 teachers and administrators to the Institute in July. Designed by experts and current teachers, the conference was packed with sessions to help teachers create classroom cultures that integrate inquiry-based STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) content.  Participants also benefited from connecting with each other to discuss instructional challenges and brainstorm ideas to improve student learning. Back by popular demand, Science on the Grand will be held again next summer. Learn more and mark your calendar for 2019!

Graduate student receives prestigious NIH grant

Maggie Chassé, a third-year VAIGS student, was awarded a prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Service Award (F31) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will support her research into an aggressive pediatric cancer called rhabdoid tumor. These highly competitive grants are usually awarded to the top 25 percent of applicants in a given year. Chassé is the second student from the Graduate School to receive an NIH grant. Read more about Maggie and her research here.

Finding the blueprints for the molecules that make us

VAI scientists have been hard at work determining the precise structures of some of the body’s crucial molecular players, which provide the blueprints needed to design more effective medications. Much of this work is possible thanks to VAI’s state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM), which can visualize molecules 1/10,000th the width of a human hair.

In the last 12 months, VAI scientists have revealed how two important molecules targeted by many medications interact; unraveled the mechanism E.coli uses to infect the urinary tract; and uncovered the architecture of channels that aid in cellular communication. Read more about the discoveries made in 2018 here.

Training scientists of the future through summer camps

Summer camps have taken off at Van Andel Education Institute! In 2018, we added 10 new camps that taught students in second through 12th grades to think and act like scientists in hands-on and interactive investigations. Highlights included a fossil dig and a simulated forensic investigation. Five new camps have been added for 2019, including a Harry Potter-inspired experience. Registration for 2019 summer camps opens Jan. 1, 2019. Learn more about the program here.

Joining Stand Up To Cancer for its biennial telecast

We were thrilled to be a part of the 2018 Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) telecast, which raised a record-breaking $124 million for cancer research. The Institute has worked closely with Stand Up To Cancer since 2014, when it became home to the Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, a multi-institutional effort to move promising cancer therapies into clinical trials. If you watched the telecast, you saw our own Ann Schoen, a VAI employee for 22 years, who was featured in the biennial special. She was part of the Everyday Heroes segment honoring cancer survivors. You can view the telecast here.

VAI launches free lecture series for the public

In December, we welcomed 265 people to VAI for the first event in our new Public Lecture Series, which is free and open to anyone who registers ahead of time. The first lecture, A Focus on Parkinson’s, featured updates on recent neurodegenerative research news, including VAI’s study showing a possible link between the appendix and Parkinson’s disease. Guests heard directly from part of the team that was responsible for this new discovery and were able to ask our scientists questions about Parkinson’s. Missed the event? Not to worry — you can watch the whole lecture here! More information about the next lecture in March 2019 will be available soon.

Mapping cancer

More than a decade ago, the National Institutes of Health established The Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network, a collaborative team of scientists from the U.S. and abroad that aimed to molecularly map 33 different types of cancer. In 2018, they presented the final findings from this intensive endeavor in a series of 27 papers published across the prestigious Cell family of journals. VAI scientists played an important part in these discoveries, which identified important differences among cancers that will aid in the development of new therapies and serve as an important resource for future work.

Looking for more stories from 2018? Check out our VAI Voice blog here or sign up for our newsletter here:

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