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Good Medicine: Medical research collaboration booms

Dr. Sandra Rempel and her research team.

Grand Rapids' Medical Mile continues to live up to its name, as Spectrum Health, Van Andel Research Institute, and Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine collaborate on research. Marla R. Miller finds out why adding a "bench to bedside" research component is good medicine for patients.
When Spectrum Health recruited scientist Sandra Rempel as vice president of research, the deal included bringing her lab along and plans to add basic and translational research to Spectrum’s disease-fighting arsenal.
 
Long before clinical trials, biomedical research paves the way for medical advancements and novel treatments – and Grand Rapids has become a hotbed for such cutting-edge activity. Beyond Van Andel Research Institute, Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine has recruited more than a dozen scientists to the area in the last five years.
 
Now, the opening of the Spectrum Health Basic and Translational Research Laboratories adds a basic “wet lab” and translational “bench to bedside” component to the research continuum, complementing the hospital’s proven track record in clinical trials and bringing an academic focus to its strong history of patient care.Dr. Sandra Rempel
 
The laboratories, located in Cooper’s Landing at 1345 Monroe Ave., support basic research that enhances new and existing treatment efforts in the areas of brain tumors, pediatric urology and neuroblastoma, and blood and marrow transplantation.
           
“For us, the big thing is we now have bench to bedside and back again,” Rempel says. “Also, as we gain strength, we are better partners for MSU and Van Andel. It strengthens our own research efforts, but that of the whole community. That will translate into benefit for the patient.”
 
Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine is also moving forward with plans for a new research center at the former Grand Rapids Press property. MSU needs its own facility since currently leased lab space from other institutions is at capacity, says Jeff Dwyer, senior associate dean for Research & Community Engagement in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University.
 
“Life sciences and biomedical research linked to the clinical health care environment has really been growing already,” Dwyer says. “It’s been going so well, there is just a need for more of this kind of space.”
 
Spectrum’s biomedical research at the basic and translation stages is good for medicine and good for West Michigan, attracting human capital and linking the clinical work taking place along Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile, Rempel says.
 
“The ability for us to bring in new doctors opens up the door for future growth,” Rempel says. “The whole aim is to be able to come up with new discoveries we can publish and disseminate to the world and bring new information to enhance the field and cure illness.”
 
Spectrum Health has led the region in clinical research as West Michigan’s largest health system-based research program since launching clinical trials in the late 1970s. More than 90 percent of Grand Rapids area clinical research studies are connected to Spectrum Health, which facilitates hundreds of research studies in clinical specialties within cardiovascular, oncology, pediatrics, neurosurgery, neurology, women’s health, emergency medicine, and many others.
The new labs mean Spectrum can recruit physician-scientists who want to see patients, but also have an interest in discovering innovative therapies to treat patients, she says.
 
“It’s a different kind of research,” Rempel says. “The other research was clinical before, working with patient information, looking at a treatment or device on the outcome of the patient or an actual clinical trial, testing a device and seeing if it has an effect. This shift to basic and translational research is broadening the scope of research that we can do.”
 
After being hired by Spectrum in an administrative role, Rempel initiated the renovating of Cooper’s Landing for her lab. Rempel, also a senior scientist, does research on brain tumors and directs the Molecular Neuro-Oncology Laboratory in the Cooper’s Landing facility. Her research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), focuses on the discovery of novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of malignant brain tumor patients, based on the genetics of an individual patient’s tumor.
 
Chad SchultzThe other doctors, called principal investigators in a laboratory setting, are MDs with an interest in research. Their work will support clinical research already underway in their field and taking place at Spectrum.
 
“Up until now, they have been 100 percent acting as clinicians,” Rempel says. “They were doing their research on the side, nights and weekends. But now they actually have protected time to devote to research. They are still dedicated to clinical work and to seeing patients. Obviously, that is what drives their research.”
 
Another goal is to create and build an academic framework for physician-scientists, medical students and graduate and undergraduate students to work together through established partnerships with VARI and MSU’s College of Human Medicine.
 
“One of the things that really attracted me here is there is a very strong collaboration that already exists between all of the institutions on Medical Mile,” Rempel says. “That kind of synergy allows us to grow beyond what each of us can do our own.” Spectrum and MSU’s new lab facilities will add jobs and internships and provide more opportunities for the permanent retention of doctors and scientists in training.
 
The Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center, announced last September, is tentatively slated to open late 2017. Now in the programmatic phase of the project, the design team is working on detailed specifications, refined cost estimates and determination of financing and delivery models.
 
The need for biomedical research space in Grand Rapids is crucial to support the projected growth of MSU and its NIH-funded research portfolios, Dwyer says.
 
As of January, the medical school had 15 principal investigators and their scientific teams working in West Michigan. The college anticipates recruiting another six to nine PIs over the next three years, for a total of 21 to 24 PIs – plus their research teams – for the Grand Rapids Research Center.
 
“Building this research environment can also be economic development because these scientists are buying houses, buying groceries, putting their families in schools,” Dwyer says. “What happens is each of these scientists ends up being the key component of a whole team of people: professionals who work in the lab, medical students, undergraduate and graduate students and other colleagues.”
 
The research center is part of MSU’s growing presence in Grand Rapids, Dwyer says. In 2010, MSU College of Human Medicine opened the Secchia Center, a state-of-the-art facility planned specifically for medical education and not designed to accommodate research laboratories. The college currently partners with Van Andel Institute and Grand Valley State University to lease lab space for the MSU investigators in their facilities.
 
From collecting data to securing grants, the collaborations go beyond practical lab experience, Rempel says. Spectrum’s principal investigators will oversee the research, but it opens new doors for students studying life sciences or interested in a career in scientific research. Spectrum’s labs currently staff 14, with plans to have student interns and postdocs from Grand Valley and MSU in the labs by this summer, Rempel says.
 
“We now have researchers who can take them into their labs,” Rempel says. “We see this as a great win-win situation for all the institutions involved. The whole idea is that when we collaborate, we get together as a group and exchange all our clinical and scientific ideas. We can write papers together, put grants together. MSU might get a grant, or we might get the grant and they would help … If we had a project, postdocs and students would come in and work on that project.”
 
Van Andel Research Institute conducts basic and translational research into the genetic and molecular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases. It does not work with patients directly, and does not participate in clinical trials, but researchers emphasize translating scientific research results into clinical applications.
 
Spectrum’s new lab is good news for the continuum of research being done in West Michigan, says Jana Hall, VAI’s Chief Operations Officer.
 
“Spectrum’s new facility does extend Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile and contributes to critical mass in the development of bioscience,” she says. “A rising tide lifts all boats. The more research the better. All of us in West Michigan want to impact human health.”

Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website: marlarmiller.com

Photography by Adam Bird
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