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A good first step
West Michigan’s life sciences industry marches toward the future.

By Daniel Schoonmaker
Photography by Michael Buck

There is slightly more than a half-billion dollars of development currently under way on Michigan Street near the intersection of Bostwick Avenue — part of the now multi-billion-dollar “Medical Mile” life sciences district.

On the north side of Michigan, the stretch of new construction features the huge Michigan Street Development, which includes the Secchia Center (future home of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine), medical offices and research labs above a parking garage, and Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. On the south side of Michigan at Bostwick are the expansion of the Van Andel Institute and the construction of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Immanuel Lutheran Church sits proudly in the middle of it.

That flurry of medical development doesn’t include other projects around Grand Rapids that are under way or recently completed: the $98 million renovation of Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids; Mid Towne Village, which includes the Women’s Health Center; the Hauenstein Center of Saint Mary’s Health Care; the brand new Metro Hospital in Wyoming; and dozens of other projects.

On the global stage of life sciences, this is what one might call “a good first step.”


David Van Andel

“I think West Michigan has shown it is serious about life sciences and becoming a health care destination,” said David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute. “I’ve seen that with the infrastructure builds that we’ve got going on.”

Although not a scientist or physician, Van Andel, son of late Amway co-founder and VAI founder Jay Van Andel, has become the public face of life sciences in West Michigan. The VAI, a cancer research and education center, is widely regarded as the catalyst behind the Medical Mile investments, and now is in the midst of its own infrastructure campaign — a 240,000-square-foot, eight-story expansion of its existing facility on Michigan Street into a $125 million annual operation employing 800 researchers and administrative staff. This will allow the institute to branch into new areas of study and to collaborate with students and researchers from the MSU medical school, which will have no clinical space of its own.

“What has been interesting over the last several years is the significant infrastructure build that is occurring as a result of our being here,” said Van Andel. “We see a significant investment for the long term beginning to play out, and now that we’re building all this infrastructure, the next important step is going to be to populate all those facilities.”

As Van Andel and his contemporaries are quick to point out, these investments are not necessarily achievements, but potential. Infrastructure — be it a road, bridge or laboratory space — is, by definition, only support. So, if the Medical Mile is the road …

Talent competition on a global scale
VAI senior scientific investigator Art Alberts had been a researcher at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, when he included Grand Rapids as part of an interview tour that took him to universities and research institutions across the country. He was intrigued by the presence of the institute’s high-profile research director, George Vande Woude, in a “low-profile” city, and also intrigued by the rare opportunity to help start a research center from scratch. But he had little idea what to expect of the Grand Rapids community.


Art Alberts

“I flew in one night in October with no preconceived notions of Grand Rapids or the Midwest,” recalled Alberts. Exhausted at the end of a long trip, he skipped touring the city and settled into his room at the Amway Grand Plaza.

“I opened the drapes and there was this guy standing in the middle of the river who had just hooked a salmon,” Alberts recalled. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’”

Alberts later returned with his wife for a closer look at West Michigan. They ended up buying a home in Lowell, and eight years later, Alberts has become a Grand Rapids ambassador on the international stage.

“You bet people are going to hear about Grand Rapids,” he said. “It’s the first slide of every presentation I give. … You would get a lot of raised eyebrows, but once they found out that George was the director, it brought a substantial amount of credibility.”

In the scientific community, Alberts explained, it doesn’t matter “where” as much as “who.” The core focus of the VAI on molecular and genetic research was not the idea of Van Andel or his father, but the result of the recruitment of Vande Woude, an international leader in that specialty.

“If we had someone that no one had ever heard of, that would be different,” Alberts said. “When I was growing up in San Diego, you would hear things about the Salk Institute and the Scripps Research Institute. These small research institutes were in the news because the people there were doing important things. It has been my ambition at the VAI to be a part of something like that.”

 

Bin Teh

A floor down from Alberts’ laboratory is another scientist who exposes the institute to the international community. While Alberts cited some “geographic limitations” in his initial efforts, distinguished scientific investigator Bin Tean Teh has experienced no such boundaries. In fact, it is actually easier for him to collaborate with researchers in his Singapore lab than the lab across the hall.

“This is my (Singapore) office — the lights are off, but it’s actually there,” Teh demonstrated on the large dark monitor perched above his Grand Rapids desk. “Last night we had a video conference; it will be Saturday morning there soon, with two scientists working.”

One of the institute’s selling points for Teh, a Malaysian native schooled in Australia and Sweden, was its early commitment to globalization. Under Teh, the institute established the now 14-scientist lab in collaboration with the National Cancer Center, Singapore, granting him access to its 1,800-bed hospital — and variations of cancer not common in West Michigan.

“We have the technology, but we can’t use it 24 hours a day,” Teh said.

So the VAI technology is being used by the Singapore Hospital while local researchers sleep, a relationship that creates great opportunities for both facilities, Teh said.

The venture recently solved a medical mystery in northeastern Thailand, tracing a high incident rate of bile duct cancer to the ingestion of a particular freshwater fish.

“I think this will help us raise the awareness of our institute all over the world,” Teh said of the collaboration. “Most of the people overseas have heard about Stanford, Harvard and MIT, but they haven’t heard of Van Andel. We’re using this to compete with those institutions for talent.”

Fresh off his recruitment into the Grand Rapids biomedical complex, Dan Farkas also does much of his research via telecommute — as the director of the Center for Molecular Medicine in Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences (also part of Michigan Street’s Medical Mile).

“I’ve worked all over the country and traveled all over the world,” said Farkas, who lives near Detroit and can still claim an outsider’s perspective on the region. “When I look around at all the infrastructure up and down Michigan Street, I can see that we’re looking at the next many, many decades worth of biotech research, health care and medical technology. I don’t think Grand Rapids has to take a back seat to anybody.”

Building blocks large and small
A joint venture of the VAI and Spectrum Health, the Center for Molecular Medicine is the stuff of yesteryear’s fantastic scientific predictions. The instruments are hulking boxes of computers. There is a sign reading “Beware: Big Scary Laser.”

Researcher Lyle Rawlings, leading a recent tour, referred to a unique genetic diagnostic test housed in a large black box.

“With this test, I was able to learn that I’m a bad metabolizer of certain drugs,” Rawlings said. “I have a gene for it and never knew it.”

 

Lyle Rawlings

Rawlings learned long ago that certain cough syrups make him loopy. What he didn’t know was that the same trait would lead to severe and frightening reactions if he were ever to take an antidepressant or antipsychotic.

“I’m a person that would need this test,” Rawlings said. “It’s very important that this is available. We’re trying to educate physicians to that fact.”

Filling a gap between clinical diagnostics and translational medicine, the center is conducting extremely expensive research into the genetic reasons behind patient care outcomes. For instance, a children’s oncology study is examining why some patients recover while others die after seemingly identical treatment scenarios.


Richard Leach

As one of only a handful of facilities in the nation with the capacity and instrumentation to perform these tests, the center has become a draw for both corporate research dollars and talented researchers.

Richard Leach, chair of MSU’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, is using the Center for Molecular Medicine as part of his recruitment efforts for a laboratory focused on women’s health that will be located alongside the center in Cook-DeVos’ West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative incubator facility.

“I’m very proud when I bring in investigators to see that,” said Leach, who arrived in Grand Rapids last summer and is currently posted at the VAI. “They are impressed by the resources — not only the quality of life, but the scientific excellence and the sophisticated obstetric and gynecological practice here.

“This is really an attractive environment for leading investigators to come and work in,” said Leach.
In turn, the increasing presence of MSU has made it easier for patient care centers to recruit talent.

“We’re finding that as we do joint recruitment with the medical school, we’re able to attract people that would not have otherwise been interested in West Michigan,” said David Baumgartner, vice president of medical affairs at Saint Mary’s. “They’re bringing these talents to the area that will ultimately result in new advances.”

Saint Mary’s is already seeing the new blood inject fresh ideas into its organization. The stimulus resulted in a now-patented redesign of its radiation therapy room doors. Dr. Deborah Gelinas, in her first three weeks on staff, recently introduced a new research technique to the hospital and wrote a grant to apply that technique to another degenerative disorder. The new clinic for muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) was another direct result of the MSU collaboration, in partnership with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

“As these research and innovations come about, it puts us in a good position to be among the early users,” said Lody Zwarensteyn, president of Alliance for Health, an organization that monitors quality and availability of health care in West Michigan. “That will be very, very good from a quality standpoint. And then there are going to be spin-offs that go beyond the investigation and actually into production types of areas that will have an impact on jobs. It’s a win-win.”

Infancy to industry
Although most everyone in West Michigan has heard of the Van Andel Institute, it is understood that most don’t have any concrete understanding of what it does — or how it could affect West Michigan.

“Some of it is because we’ve been for so long experienced with manufacturing, where you’re making something tangible,” explained Van Andel. “It’s very difficult to grasp what it is we’re doing. We’re dealing with interactions at the cellular level of the human being. How do you explain that to somebody? Some of these things are over my head, and I deal with them every day. How do you explain to someone why this should be important to them?”

On the opposite side of the life sciences spectrum are companies such as Caledonia-based medical device distributor and manufacturer MarketLab. Listed twice by business magazine Inc. on its list of fastest-growing companies, MarketLab was the first company in the nation to introduce large-scale mail-order distribution to the health care market, and has grown an average of 50 percent each year for the past five years. The 100-employee company plans to add 20 new positions in 2008.

“We couldn’t believe the amount of resources we were able to find in our own backyard,” said Mike Bieker, who launched the company from his basement in 1994. MarketLab had ceased manufacturing in the 1990s, but five years ago re-established production capacity.

“It is not uncommon for us to need four different components for an assembly — and find all four sources within a couple miles of our facility,” Bieker said.

In between the tangible benefits of organizations like MarketLab and the intangible ones of VAI is the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, the Cook-DeVos-based incubator facility and clearinghouse for life sciences commercialization. Its incubator houses labs for the Center for Molecular Medicine and MSU, the ClinXus consortium (which promotes local clinical research capabilities), and the research and development center of California-based medical device firm Avalon Laboratories, which is now shopping for a new home after receiving a $66 million second-stage capital investment.

“On the evolutionary scale of development of a life sciences powerhouse, we’re still in our infancy,” said Linda Chamberlain, executive director of the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, or WMSTI. “To suggest we’re competitive with coastal activities would be naïve of us, but I’d say we’re on the right track.”

Like “infrastructure,” the world “infancy” comes up a lot in life sciences discussion. This industry takes time to grow, Chamberlain said, with a 20-year return on investment for therapeutic and pharmaceutical investment, and five to six years for diagnostic equipment. WMSTI is focusing much of its efforts on medical device investment, which has a two- to three-year turnaround.

Regardless of timing, WMSTI is taking the lead in area commercialization efforts, providing a needed link between life sciences infrastructure and market. It has served more than 200 different companies in the last 18 months, and has facilitated more than $107 million in investment.

On the global stage of life sciences, that is what one might call “a good second step.”

“It takes awhile to accomplish these goals,” concluded Van Andel. “You need to have a certain number of folks working together in concert — a critical mass — and I think we’re moving toward that. We’re going to get to a point where you have these people here working and doing these things, and then all of a sudden, you will have the capability to do things here you were only dreaming of 10 years ago.” GR

   
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