While the world has been preoccupied with other health issues, it has been easy to overlook some of the amazing and innovative medical advances that have been taking place outside of the public eye – even if they are happening right under our noses.
West Michigan has built a solid reputation as a leader in the healthcare industry for many years, and that work hasn’t slowed down despite the “new normal” that has shrouded the past 24 months and more. Medical research and innovation in this field continues to thrive, led by some of the usual proponents, like biomedical research and the nonprofit Van Andel Institute for Education, but also by relative newcomers to the Medical Mile, like the fast-growing innovation of Michigan State College of Human Medicine 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 is home to 33 research teams focused on improving treatments for diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, in addition to finding innovations in women’s health and reproductive medicine, and stroke prevention and treatment.
In the fall of 2019, the university broke ground on the second phase of its innovation park, the seven-story, 205,000 square meter Doug Meijer Innovation Building. The building will house both private industry and healthcare teams who will carry on the mission set out by Dr. Norman Beauchamp, MSU Executive Vice President for Health Science, to continue bringing hope and healing to West Michigan.
When completed, the innovation park will have four buildings and an area of approximately 675,000 square feet and total approximately $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 had already made strides that would eventually provide a roadmap for the innovation park’s mission.
“We are incredibly proud of our collaboration and research efforts, and the next challenge was to construct a building that would bring together industry partners to join you in this mission of inventing and disseminating discoveries,” said Beauchamp.
The university already has two high-profile tenants to boost the innovation park’s reputation as well as healthcare and research output.
Pharmaceutical manufacturer Perrigo is moving its North American headquarters to 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 a “great direction” for what the university plans to build at the Innovation Park.
Additionally, in May 2021, the university partnered with precision medicine company Bold Advanced Medical Future (BAMF) Health, leasing approximately 35,000 square meters of space in the building for its headquarters. In June, BAMF Health received two cyclotrons, which are used to manufacture radiopharmaceuticals that target specific organs, tissues or cells, enabling hyperspecific treatment of diseases such as prostate cancer. In particular, the cyclotrons are used to produce the isotope tracers.
“The strength of BAMF’s approach is that it only treats the cancer and not the other therapies that need to treat the whole person,” said Beauchamp. “And what I love about it is the idea that it contributes to the innovation ecosystem because MSU has the leading particle physics program in the country thanks to the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) in East Lansing.
“It creates this incredible center in West Michigan that also leverages our strengths in East Lansing.”
An economic analysis of the four buildings that make up the Innovation Park estimates that the university will generate an economic impact of approximately US$339 million annually over the next 10 years with a net output of US$3.39 billion and slightly more will create more than 2,000 new jobs in the region.
Maintaining this forward momentum has not been easy given the challenges posed by COVID-19. But the university has responded by embracing the idea of digital health and optimizing its results.
Mobile health centers, wearable devices, telemedicine services, and other tools and technologies are a big part of the digital health boom that has become increasingly necessary in the age of COVID-19. Global investment in digital health grew from an all-time high of $39 billion in 2020 to a new record of $57.9 billion in 2021. In North America alone, the digital health market will exceed 200 by 2026 million dollars estimated.
“There’s a lot of optimism in the digital health industry and what we’ve built there is a way to mobilize health and it’s about empowering people,” Beauchamp said. “We sometimes say we know our job is done when you don’t need anyone to help you navigate the healthcare system, it’s just clear from the start what you need to do and how to access it.
“(Digital Healthcare) goes directly to care coordination, cost reduction and increased access, 24/7 every day of the year.”
Adjacent to Michigan State’s Innovation Park, the Van Andel Institute has also made significant strides in the face of a global pandemic. In the past calendar year alone — during 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 scholars appointed to the Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers List, which recognizes them as members of the top 1% 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 work together,” said VAI Chief Scientific Officer Peter Jones. “Rather than putting our scientists in a room and working on their own thing, they have the opportunity to work with a range of different scientists and we manage to attract the best in the world.”
Jones said that recruitment of senior scientists to VAI has been much faster due to the proliferation and increasing reliance on video conferencing. The institute was able to use video interviewing to interview potential candidates quickly and efficiently without major scheduling conflicts. After travel restrictions were eased, the Institute was able to fly them out to tour the facilities in person.
“That allowed us to strike while the iron was hot and to get all these great people in one year was a real accomplishment for us,” Jones said.
The increase in staff at VAI quickly paid off. For example, not long after assistant professor of cell biology Stephanie Grainger, who joined the VAI from San Diego State University last fall, she received a $2.4 million grant to continue her research in the possibly associated cell communication to support cancer.
Courtesy of the Van Andel Institute
In total, the Institute received 32 new research grants to further research on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer epigenetics, to name a few. These grants include a five-year, $9.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to support a study of how variation affects a person’s health, and a $12.4 million SPORE grant US dollars from the National Cancer Institute for VAI and the Coriell Institute of Medical Research in support work to improve epigenetic therapies for cancer.
“Grand Rapids has evolved into a true hub for high-quality science and epigenetic research, and we continue to develop our team,” Jones said. “It’s been a bullish period for us.”
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. Subscribe here to get more stories like this in your mailbox.