On April 13, the world lost Dr. George Vande Woude, Van Andel Institute’s founding research director and a world-renowned scientist whose storied career revolutionized our understanding of cancer. His vast scientific contributions, exceptional vision and commitment to building world-class research programs will galvanize discovery and scientific excellence for years to come.
Among Dr. Vande Woude’s most lauded breakthroughs is the 1984 discovery of the human MET oncogene, which is now a major target for personalized cancer therapies. He was the first to determine the structure and enhancer function of long terminal repeats, specific sequences of the DNA that govern gene expression. He also was the first to show that mutations can transform normal genes to cancer-promoting genes, or oncogenes. These foundational discoveries — along with the findings detailed in more than 300 published, peer-reviewed papers — will continue to shape cancer research and treatment now and into the future.
Dr. Vande Woude’s talents stretched far beyond the laboratory research. He spent nearly three decades at the National Cancer Institute, where he established himself as a scientific architect and pioneer who built successful research programs from scratch.
When he joined VAI in 1999 as the Institute’s founding research director, the hill now occupied by the Institute’s facilities was little more than a parking lot. His tenacity and infectious optimism for the fledgling institute’s future drew a cadre of promising young scientists and established scientific investigators to Grand Rapids. Now, just over two decades later, VAI ranks among the top life sciences organizations in the world and has a growing reputation for exceptional, life-changing research. The efforts of Dr. Vande Woude and VAI Chairman and CEO David Van Andel were recognized in 2015 by Research!America, who awarded them the Geoffrey Beene Builders of Science Award.
“When George first came to the Institute, it was still under construction. We felt fortunate to recruit such a towering figure in the field of genomic cancer research,” Van Andel said. “Throughout the years, George’s profound intellect and wise counsel have been invaluable. More than anything, though, we will miss his smile and his gracious way of engaging us all in conversation.”
In 2009, Dr. Vande Woude decided to step down as VAI’s research director to focus on his laboratory. He was instrumental in the recruitment of VAI’s current Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Peter A. Jones. In the intervening years, Dr. Vande Woude provided invaluable counsel to VAI’s leadership and continued his exploration into the genomic underpinnings of cancer.
“George was one of my scientific heroes and a dear friend,” Jones said. “He established the firm foundation of scientific excellence that we continue to build upon today. We will dearly miss his insights, his stories and his enthusiasm.”
Over his career, Dr. Vande Woude accrued an impressive list of scientific accolades. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, and the American Association for Cancer Research Academy and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013.
Dr. Vande Woude was an exceptional colleague, mentor and leader who will be fondly remembered for his empathy, his humor and his boundless brilliance. He joins his beloved wife, Dot, who passed away in 2016. We extend our heartfelt condolences to their daughters, Susan Vande Woude, Gail Vande Woude, Cindy Vande Woude, Alice Fens and their families.