Medical innovation continues across Grand Rapids

Pandemic can’t slow rate of collaboration, new discoveries.
Courtesy Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

While the world has been busy with other health concerns, it was easy to miss some of the impressive and innovative medical advances that have taken place outside of the public’s attention — even when it’s happening right under our noses.

For many years West Michigan has built a strong reputation as a leader in the health care industry and that work has not slowed despite the “new normal” that has enveloped the past 24-plus months. Medical research and innovation in the field has continued to flourish, guided by some of the usual stalwarts, like biomedical research and educational nonprofit Van Andel Institute, but also by relative newcomers to the Medical Mile, like Michigan State College of Human Medicine’s rapidly expanding Innovation Park.

MSU opened the first phase of its Innovation Park, the Grand Rapids Research Center at the intersection of Michigan and Monroe, in 2017. The six-story building houses 33 research teams that focus on improving treatment of diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, in addition to searching out innovations in women’s health and reproductive medicine, as well as stroke prevention and treatments.

The university broke ground on the second phase of its Innovation Park, the seven-story 205,000-square-foot Doug Meijer Innovation Building, in fall 2019. The building will house both private industry and health care teams that will carry on the mission set forth by Dr. Norman Beauchamp, MSU executive vice president for health science, to continue to bring hope and healing to West Michigan.

When complete, the Innovation Park will comprise four buildings and about 675,000 square feet of space totaling about $300 million in new construction.

Beauchamp cited the university’s close partnership with clinical practice groups in the region as an example of how MSU already had laid inroads that would eventually provide a roadmap for the Innovation Park’s mission.

“We’re incredibly proud of our collaboration and research efforts and the next challenge became how to bring up a building that would collocate industry partners to join you in this mission of inventing and disseminating discovery,” Beauchamp said.

The university already has a pair of high-profile tenants to bolster Innovation Park’s reputation and health care and research output.

Pharmaceutical manufacturer Perrigo is relocating its North American headquarters to the Innovation Park, taking over the top three floors of 430 Monroe Ave. NW. Beauchamp said the company’s focus on home health care and self-care provides “great alignment” for what the university is looking to build in Innovation Park.

Additionally, in May 2021, the university entered a partnership with precision medicine company Bold Advanced Medical Future (BAMF) Health, leasing about 35,000 square feet of space at building for its headquarters. In June, BAMF Health received two cyclotrons that will be used to manufacture radiopharmaceuticals that can target specific organs, tissues or cells, allowing for hyper specific treatment in diseases like prostate cancer. Specifically, the cyclotrons will be used to make the isotopic tracers.

“The strength of the approach by BAMF is it treats just the cancer instead of the other therapies that have to treat the whole person,” Beauchamp said. “And what I love about this is just the idea that it adds to the innovation ecosystem because MSU has the No. 1 grad particle physics program in the country thanks to the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) in East Lansing.

“It creates this incredible hub in West Michigan that can also draw on our strengths in East Lansing.”

An economic analysis of the four buildings that make up Innovation Park estimated the university will provide an economic impact of roughly $339 million annually over the next 10 years for a net output of $3.39 billion, creating a little more than 2,000 new jobs in the region.

With the challenges presented by COVID-19, maintaining that forward momentum hasn’t been easy. But the university has responded by placing increased emphasis on the idea of digital health and optimizing its outcomes.

Mobile health centers, wearable devices, telehealth services and other tools and technology are a large part of the digital health boom, which became more necessary in the era of COVID-19. Global investment in digital health grew from an all-time high of $39 billion in 2020 to a new record $57.9 billion in 2021. In North America alone, the digital health market is estimated to be valued at over $200 million by 2026.

“There’s a lot of optimism in the industry of digital health and what we’ve built there is a way to mobilize health and it’s about empowering people,” Beauchamp said. “We’ll sometimes say we know our work is done when you don’t need someone to help you navigate through the health system, it’s just clear from the start what you need to do and how you can access it.

“(Digital health care) goes directly at care coordination, cost reduction and increased access, 24/7 every day of the year.”

Just down the road from Michigan State’s Innovation Park, the Van Andel Institute also has taken significant strides in the face of a global pandemic. In just the past calendar year — in which the institute celebrated a quarter-century of operations in Grand Rapids — VAI recruited six new principal investigators, cut the ribbon on its new graduate school now located on Division Avenue and saw five of its scientists named to the Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers List, distinguishing them as members of the top 1% of citations in their respective fields.

“Scientists are like artists, they like to be together at a certain time and place and Grand Rapids is a wonderful place for people to collaborate,” VAI Chief Scientific Officer Peter Jones said. “Instead of sticking our scientists in one room working on their own thing, they have the ability to collaborate with a number of different scientists and we manage to attract the very best in the world.”

Jones said recruiting top-tier scientists to VAI went much quicker due to the prevalence and increased reliance on videoconferencing. The institute was able to use video interviews to quickly and efficiently interview potential candidates without much scheduling conflict. Once travel restrictions eased, the institute was able to fly them out to see the facilities in person.

“That allowed us to strike while the iron was hot and getting all these great people in one year was a real achievement for us,” Jones said.

VAI’s staff additions quickly has paid dividends. For example, not long after Cell Biology assistant professor Stephanie Grainger — who came to VAI from San Diego State University this past fall — joined the institute, she was awarded a $2.4 million grant to aid in her research in cellular communication that may be linked to cancer.

Courtesy Van Andel Institute

In all, the institute received 32 new research grants to propel further research for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer epigenetics, to name a few. Those grants include a five-year, $9.6 million award from the National Institute of Health in support of a study on how variation impacts a person’s health and a $12.4 million SPORE grant from the National Cancer Institute for VAI and Coriell Institute of Medical Research to support work in improving epigenetic therapies for cancer.

“Grand Rapids has become a real hub for quality science and epigenetics research and we’re continuing to develop our team,” Jones said. “It’s been a bullish time for us.”

This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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