$7.8 million “Outstanding Investigator Award” goes to VARI chief scientist

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (May 31, 2017) 
– Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc., chief scientific officer of Van Andel Research Institute, has received a 7-year, $7.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute’s R35 Outstanding Investigator Award program, which will support the development of epigenetic cancer drugs.

Jones is one of 25 recipients of the award in this funding cycle. The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, launched the program in 2015 to “provide extended funding stability and encourage investigators to embark on projects of unusual potential in cancer research,” according to the funding announcement.

“The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience: finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” says Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”

The award comes less than a year after the nation’s elite scientists elected Jones into the National Academy of Sciences to advise the country on scientific issues.

Leveraging Teamwork and Technology
Among the efforts this award will facilitate are Jones’ cancer epigenetics research, which includes collaborations in the U.S. and abroad; co-leadership of the Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) Epigenetics Dream Team; new drug development; and clinical trials.

“We are very excited about the flexibility and creativity this grant will give us to understand—at the most fundamental levels—how tumors develop and how we can arrest their growth,” says Jones. “We believe this work will result in new drugs, combinations of drugs, and clinical trials that will dramatically improve survival and quality of life for millions of people with cancer and their families.”

Jones also plans to utilize VARI’s new, $10 million suite of cryo-electron microscopes (cryo-EM)—the David Van Andel Advanced Cryo-Electron Microscopy Suite—including a state-of-the art Titan Krios, which gives scientists an unprecedented look at key enzymes, proteins and genetic material at high resolution.

Understanding Epigenomics and Cancer
Nearly 600,000 people die from cancer every year in the United States with another 1.7 million new cases expected to be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The research underway in the Jones Laboratory aims to diminish suffering from cancer for people around the world.

“Our goal is to have a rapid mechanistic and translational impact, leading to new clinical trials for novel cancer treatment and, ultimately, to FDA approval,” says Jones. “This award was possible because of VARI’s interdisciplinary offerings, which allow us to conduct basic science and move our discoveries quickly out of the laboratory and into patient care and clinical trials.”

At the center of Jones’ research is a field called epigenetics, which can be explained using an analogy comparing DNA and a musical score. Just as DNA is nearly identical in every cell in the body, so too do the same notes appear on every copy of a musical score—wherever it’s printed and whenever it’s performed. Musicians must interpret those notes just as epigenetic modifications help interpret the genetic code written in DNA. Subtle changes in key, pitch, instrumentation, volume and tempo vary among performances. Omission of entire movements or changes to instrumentation can more dramatically alter the output. The same is true with DNA—the presence or absence of certain epigenetic modifications affect individual cells’ identity and behavior. When epigenetic modifications go awry, they can lead to the growth and spread of malignant cells.

Advancing Discovery Through Federal Funding
Jones’ work has shed light on the promise of epigenetics and led to a litany of firsts in cancer research and other conditions. Much of this work, and the work of others in the field, builds on Jones’ seminal 1980 discovery about the role of epigenetics in cell differentiation.

These efforts have earned him significant federal funding support over the years, including an R37 Merit Award in June 2009 and a series of R01 awards. Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R35CA209859. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent nonprofit biomedical research and science education organization committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VAI has grown into a premier research and educational institution that supports the work of more than 360 scientists, educators and staff. Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research division, is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translating those findings into effective therapies. The Institute’s scientists work in onsite laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe.[/gdlr_column]

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Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc.
VARI Chief Scientific Officer
Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Epigenetics

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DR. JONES” ][/gdlr_title]

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Beth Hinshaw Hall