Van Andel Institute (VAI) is dedicated to exceptional research and to positively impacting human health. Through cutting-edge science and extensive collaboration, VAI’s investigators are working to find new diagnostics and treatments for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoarthritis and depression.
VAI’s laboratories are divided into three centers and a core services team, which allows for efficiency and cross-center collaboration.
Dr. Jones was born in South Africa, raised and attended college in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and received his Ph.D. from the University of London. He joined the University of Southern California in 1977, attaining the rank of Professor in 1985 and Distinguished Professor in 1999. He also served as Director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center between 1993 and 2011.
Dr. Patrik Brundin has more than 30 years of experience studying neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s disease pathogenesis and therapeutic neural grafting into people with Parkinson’s disease. He is one of the top cited researchers in the field of neuroscience with nearly 300 publications on Parkinson’s disease and related topics.
The Department of Epigenetics seeks to understand the plasticity of our genomes, and how our genetic output can be stably modified to protect us from or predispose us to complex disease such as cancer, infection, obesity and Parkinson’s. Faculty investigate the molecular processes that fine-tune how DNA is packaged, and how this packaging is stabilized to form disease programs. In this way, they will mine the origins of these complex diseases, mapping them to genetic and environmental inputs now, in our early lives, and even before birth.
The Department of Neurodegenerative Science focuses on elucidating disease mechanisms and identifying novel disease-modifying therapeutic approaches for major neurodegenerative diseases, with a special focus on Parkinson’s disease. Additional areas of interest include dementias (Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies) and psychiatric disorders (depression, anxiety). Department faculty have research interests and expertise in the molecular underpinnings of neurodegenerative disease through an understanding of genetic risk, epigenetics, cell biology, biomarkers, neuropathology, neuroinflammation, neural circuits and patient-derived biospecimens. Their mission is to leverage new knowledge for the development of treatments for Parkinson’s and related disorders.
The Department of Cell Biology pursues fundamental discoveries about how changes in cell growth, survival and function underlie human diseases and identifies new strategies that could contribute to improved quality of life. A central theme in all department work is exploring how tissue-specific stem cells are regulated to maintain physiological homeostasis in tissues and how inappropriate growth of cells with these characteristics causes tumorigenesis.
The proper regulation of cellular division, differentiation and survival is required for all development in multi-cellular organisms, and the dysregulation of these processes causes all human disease. The Department of Cell Biology focuses on discovering the mechanisms that underlie these processes, with a goal of understanding both how they normally occur and how alterations in these processes cause human disease. To this end, laboratories in the department investigate the molecular mechanisms that control cellular processes such as proliferation, apoptosis (programmed cell death), senescence (cellular aging), signal transduction (how cells respond to signals from their environment), and differentiation (how cells change characteristics).
The Department of Structural Biology aims to understand biology and human diseases at their most basic level. Scientists in the department use a series of advanced biophysical and biochemical techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy, X-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry and patch-clamp electrophysiology, to determine the atomic structures of proteins and protein-nucleic acid complexes and investigate their biological functions both in vitro with purified samples and in cells. The determination of these structures illuminates the underpinnings of normal cellular function as well as disease-related dysfunction. They also reveal the action mechanisms of many existing drugs and may guide the development of novel therapeutics.
For the human body to function properly, it must have the right amount of energy and resources in the right place at the right time. The Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming focuses on understanding the intricate mechanics of cellular metabolism and their implications for human health. Its major focus is understanding how environmental exposures and metabolic dysfunction contribute to complex diseases such as diabetes, autoimmunity, cancer and neurodegeneration. Research in the department centers on metabolism and its intersection with cancer biology, immune function (immunometabolism), metabolic physiology (diabetes and obesity), and intergenerational inheritance of nutritional states. By leveraging novel model systems (cellular, animal models and patient samples) and approaches in molecular physiology, metabolomics, immunology and epigenetics, department faculty are able to advance numerous fields, unlocking new understanding of how metabolism fuels fundamental cellular processes such as cell growth, survival and differentiation in various health and disease contexts. The department’s mission is to rigorously study metabolism and how it is impacted by nutrition, genetics and epigenetics, in order to develop metabolism-based therapeutics and interventions with the ultimate goal of improving human health.