Three outstanding structural biologists join Van Andel Research Institute


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Aug. 25, 2016)—Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) is pleased to announce the recruitment of three exceptional structural biologists, who will significantly expand the Institute’s ability to investigate some of the most miniscule yet most vital components of human biology.

Structural biology is a method that transcends fields and that is dedicated to determining the composition and structure of tiny molecules, such as proteins, that are key players in virtually every process in the human body. This latest recruitment significantly adds to VARI’s existing structural biology expertise, which includes the laboratories of Eric Xu, Ph.D., and Karsten Melcher, Ph.D., and will further position the Institute as a leader in the field.

“Understanding what some of the smallest—and most important—molecules in biology look like is a significant benefit when designing therapies for cancer, Parkinson’s and other devastating diseases. By expanding our capabilities, both in technology and talent, and establishing a critical mass of expertise in structural biology, we have untold opportunities to impact therapeutic development,” said Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc., the Institute’s chief scientific officer. “It is an honor to welcome Dr. Huilin Li, Dr. Wei Lü and Dr. Gongpu Zhao to the Institute.”

Huilin Li, Ph.D., is a renowned structural biologist with more than 20 years of experience in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technology that allows scientists to see the structure of minute molecules 1/10,000th the width of a human hair. He joined VARI this week from Stony Brook University, where he has been a professor since 2010. While there, he led the team that created the first-ever images of the helicase protein complex, a molecule that plays a key role in copying DNA. Errors in this process are a common cause of DNA mutations that contribute to many diseases, including cancer.

Wei Lü, Ph.D., will join the Institute’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology as an assistant professor this winter from Oregon Health and Science University, where he currently is a postdoctoral fellow in the Gouaux Laboratory. His work has contributed significantly to the field’s understanding of the mechanisms behind chemical synapses, which help regulate communication between brain cells. Specifically, his work with cryo-EM has led to new insights into the structure of glycine receptors and NMDA receptors, proteins that play critical roles in development and function of the nervous system.

Gongpu Zhao, Ph.D., joined VARI in May as manager of the Institute’s new Cryo-EM Core. He came to Grand Rapids from the Zhang laboratory at University of Pittsburgh where, in 2013, Zhao was part of the team that uncovered the structure of the HIV-1 virus’s capsid, the outer “shell” of the virus. This discovery was featured on the cover of Nature and garnered widespread acclaim.

The recruitments are augmented by significant expansions in the Institute’s technological capabilities, including the installation of a suite of highly specialized electron microscopes and a high-performance computer and network to support the large quantities of data generation.


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. 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®

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