Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) is dedicated to exceptional research and to positively impacting human health. Through cutting-edge science and extensive collaboration, VARI’s investigators are working to find new diagnostics and treatments for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoarthritis and depression.
VARI’s laboratories are divided into three centers and a core services team, which allows for efficiency and cross-center collaboration.
Dr. Alberts earned degrees in Biochemistry and Cell Biology and Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego under the mentorship of Dr. James Feramisco. From 1994 to 1997, he was as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Richard Treisman’s Transcription Laboratory at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Lincoln’s Inn Fields (now the London Research Institute–Cancer Research UK). From 1998 to 1999, he was the Carol Franc Buck Fellow in Dr. Frank McCormick’s laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco Cancer Research Institute. Dr. Alberts joined Van Andel Institute as a Scientific Investigator in January 2000. He was promoted to Senior Scientific Investigator in 2006 and then to Distinguished Scientific Investigator and Professor of Cancer and Cell Biology in 2009.
Focus area: Behavioral medicine
As a psychiatrist and a scientist, Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D., seeks ways to diagnose and treat depression and suicidality by studying inflammation of the nervous system. Her findings may lead to earlier interventions for depressive patients and for development of a new class of antidepressants that targets the immune system. She also investigates how inflammatory mechanisms can damage nerve cells in Parkinson’s disease.
Focus area: Post-GWAS functionality
Gerhard Coetzee, Ph.D., searches the human genome for minuscule changes that contribute to onset, progression and drug resistance of many diseases, ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s to rare and heritable disorders. His team deploys genome sequencing technologies and high-powered computational arrays to tease out patterns and interactions of markers and treatment targets from among the human genome’s more than three billion DNA base pairs.
Focus area: Translational sarcoma therapeutics
Patrick Grohar, M.D., Ph.D., develops new drugs to treat bone cancer in children, in addition to pursuing a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of sarcomas and related conditions. Once proven safe and effective in the lab, his team translates these potential therapies into clinical trials for children with few other options. He is an associate professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology and a pediatric oncologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Focus area: Cancer immunodiagnostics
Brian Haab, Ph.D., searches for new ways to diagnose and stratify pancreatic cancer based on the chemical fingerprints tumors leave behind. Part of the problem Haab aims to solve is that cancers often look and behave normally—until after they’ve started making people sick. Haab is sleuthing out clues to build a library of diagnostic tools that will help providers diagnose tumors earlier and optimize treatment.
Focus area: Cardiovascular research
Stefan Jovinge, M.D., Ph.D., develops ways to help the heart heal itself and has led dozens of clinical trials in regenerative medicine. As a critical care cardiologist and scientist, he uses a bench-to-bedside approach in an effort to give patients with serious heart conditions longer, healthier lives. The clinical platform for his research is the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit at Spectrum Health Hospitals Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, and the basic science effort in regenerative medicine is performed at Van Andel Research Institute (VARI). He serves as director of the DeVos Cardiovascular Research Program, the name of the overall structure of the program that is a collaboration between Spectrum Health and VARI.
Focus area: Epigenetics in neurodegenerative diseases
Viviane Labrie, Ph.D., studies the dynamic interplay between the human genome and its control system—the epigenome—to understand how neurodegenerative diseases start and progress in an effort to develop improved diagnostics and treatments. Labrie’s scientific pursuits have deepened understanding of conditions from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases to schizophrenia to healthy aging conditions like lactose intolerance. She has also developed new methods for epigenome analysis.
Focus area: Cancer epigenetics
Peter W. Laird, Ph.D., seeks a detailed understanding of the molecular foundations of cancer with a particular focus on identifying crucial epigenetic alterations that convert otherwise healthy cells into cancer cells. He is widely regarded as an international leader in this effort and has helped design some of the world’s state-of-the-art tools to aid in epigenetics research. Laird is a principal investigator for the National Cancer Institute’s Genome Data Analysis Network and is a professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Epigenetics. He also played a leadership role in The Cancer Genome Atlas, a multi-institutional effort to molecularly map cancers.
Focus area: Tumor microenvironment and metastasis
Xiaohong Li, Ph.D., studies when various cancers, particularly prostate and breast cancer cells, migrate from their original site and spread to the bone. These cells stay dormant and might wake up years later or grow-up to bone metastases, cause debilitating pain and are exceedingly difficult to treat. Li hopes that a better understanding metastatic cancers will lead to new diagnostic tests and targeted therapies.
Focus area: Cryo-EM, Structural Biology, DNA Replication and Epigenetics
Huilin Li, Ph.D., uses cryo-electron microscopy to reveal the most basic building blocks of DNA replication and other systems vital for life. He has been at the vanguard of cryo-EM for more than 20 years, and his research has implications for some of the world’s most critical public health concerns, including tuberculosis, cancer, mental illness, and many more.
Focus area: Cryo-EM
Wei Lü, Ph.D., is working to unravel how brain cells communicate with each other. Using techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy, his work has contributed to the field’s understanding of molecules that play crucial roles in the development and function of the nervous system.
Focus area: Prion mechanisms in neurodegeneration
Jiyan Ma, Ph.D., studies abnormal proteins that causes neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and prion diseases in humans and animals. His lab has developed new ways to understand the how these proteins spread and cause diseases in humans and animals. The lab is also developing new approaches to diagnose and treat these devastating disorders.
Focus area: Systems biology
Jeff MacKeigan, Ph.D., studies the biological systems that influence cellular metabolism and the cell’s recycling process, known as autophagy. Extensive knowledge of these complex cellular processes helps the MacKeigan Lab understand how tumor cells respond to and resist treatment. The MacKeigan team pairs their cell biology expertise with cutting edge techniques, such as computational modeling and next generation sequencing, to identify new therapeutic targets and strategies.
Focus area: Structural biology and biochemistry
Karsten Melcher, Ph.D., studies molecular structure and cellular communication, which have implications for finding new treatments for serious health threats including cancer, diabetes and obesity. His expertise extends beyond human cells—his research into plant hormones may one day lead to heartier crops that resist drought and help meet the nutritional demands of a growing global population.
Focus area: Molecular neurodegeneration
Darren Moore, Ph.D., seeks new diagnostic and treatment approaches for Parkinson’s by investigating the inherited form of the disease, which comprises five to 10 percent of cases. He aims to translate the understanding of these genetic mutations into better treatments and new diagnostic tools for Parkinson’s, both inherited and non-inherited. Discoveries from Moore’s Lab routinely elucidate the faulty molecular interactions that transform healthy, functioning neurons into diseased ones.
Focus area: Epigenetic pathways in disease
Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D., studies how the body switches genes on and off, a biological process called methylation that, when faulty, can lead to cancer or other diseases. His studies range from the effect of tobacco smoke on genetic and epigenetic systems to the discovery of a mechanism that may help protect the brain from neurodegeneration. Pfeifer’s studies have implications across a range of diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and many others.
Focus area: Chromatin and epigenetic regulation
Scott Rothbart, Ph.D., studies the ways in which cells pack and unpack DNA. This elegant process twists and coils roughly 2 meters of unwound DNA into a space less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. Although this process is impressive, it is also subject to errors that can cause cancer and other disorders. Rothbart seeks new targets for drug development in this process.
Focus area: microRNA diagnostics and therapeutics
Lorenzo Sempere, Ph.D., studies the role of microRNAs in the origin and growth of cancer. These very short strands of genetic material were discovered just over 15 years ago, and are now recognized as dynamic regulatory modules of the larger human genome. Sempere targets microRNAs in an effort to develop new cancer drugs, specifically for pancreatic and breast cancers.
Focus area: Epigenomic analysis in human disease
Hui Shen, Ph.D., develops new approaches to cancer prevention, detection and treatment by studying the interaction between genes and their control systems, called epigenetics. Her research focuses on women’s cancers, particularly ovarian cancer, and also has shed new light on the underlying mechanisms of other many cancer types, including breast, kidney and prostate cancers.
Focus area: Musculoskeletal oncology
Matt Steensma, M.D., studies the genetic and molecular factors that cause benign tumors to become cancers to find vulnerabilities that may be targeted for treatment. As a scientist at VARI and practicing surgeon at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, he is committed to translating scientific discoveries into treatments that improve patients’ lives.
Focus area: Developmental reprogramming
Piroska Szabó, Ph.D., studies the flow of epigenetic information from parents to their offspring, with a focus on how epigenetic markers are remodeled during egg and sperm production, and how these markers are rewritten after fertilization. These processes have profound implications on fertility and embryo development. Disturbances in epigenetic remodeling are thought to contribute to disease conditions lasting well into adulthood.
Focus area: Aging and neurodegenerative disease
Jeremy Van Raamsdonk, Ph.D., studies the genetics of aging and the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. He focuses primarily on understanding what causes aging, and how the changes that take place during normal aging contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disease. His work on the relationship between oxidative stress and aging has upended many scientific assumptions about the effect of reactive oxygen species on lifespan. Ultimately, Dr. Van Raamsdonk hopes to leverage the knowledge gained about aging to develop novel treatments for neurodegenerative disorders.
Focus area: Molecular oncology
George Vande Woude, Ph.D., is a titan in cancer biology. He is the founding director of Van Andel Research Institute, which he led for a decade. His discovery and description of the MET receptor tyrosine kinase as an oncogene, together with its activating ligand hepatocyte growth factor have led to new possibilities for cancer therapies. His discovery has revolutionized the way scientists view the disease especially in tumor progression. He is a distinguished scientific fellow in the Center for Cancer and Cell Biology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Focus area: Cancer signaling and metabolism
Ning Wu, Ph.D., investigates the interface between cellular metabolism and cellular signaling, particularly as they relate to cancer. On the most basic level, cancer is fundamentally a disease of uncontrolled cell growth, and Wu believes that understanding a tumor’s voracious energy requirements and altered signaling pathways will lead to new treatments that optimize existing combination therapies and identify novel therapeutic targets.
Focus area: Skeletal biology
Tao Yang, Ph.D., studies the signaling systems that govern skeletal stem cells and the role they play in diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Bones are the largest producer of adult stem cells, which mature into cartilage, fat or bone tissue—a process that falters with age. Yang seeks a better understanding of these systems in search of new treatments for degenerative bone disorders and other skeletal aging.