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Van Andel Institute chief scientist earns $7.9 million Outstanding Investigator Award to support cancer research

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (September 28, 2023) — Van Andel Institute Chief Scientific Officer Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon), has received a seven-year, nearly $7.9 million grant from the National Cancer Institute’s Outstanding Investigator Award program. The funding will fuel his research into the epigenetic errors that drive cancer development — and help him find ways to fix them.

The award is a renewal of an earlier seven-year, $7.8 million Outstanding Investigator Award granted to Jones in 2017. The National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health, launched the Outstanding Investigator Award program in 2014 to support “investigators with outstanding records of cancer research accomplishment by providing extended funding stability and encouraging investigators to continue or embark on projects of unusual potential in cancer.”

“It is an absolute honor to receive a second Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Cancer Institute,” Jones said. “This vital funding will enable us to continue studying the intricate mechanisms that drive cancer — and explore strategies to translate our discoveries into potential new treatments.”

Jones is a globally recognized cancer scientist whose pioneering research in the 1980s helped launch the field of epigenetics, which explores factors that influence gene expression without changing the DNA sequence itself.

Epigenetic errors are present in virtually all human cancers and, for the last 40 years, Jones has been at the forefront of studying how epigenetics influences cancer, work that offers myriad opportunities for breakthrough new treatments. Jones’ research into the epigenetic modifier 5-azacytadine led to its later development and approval for treatment of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a precursor to blood cancer.

The Outstanding Investigator Award will support Jones’ research into a key epigenetic player in cancer: a molecule called DNMT3A, which is involved in brain development, regulation of body size and formation of blood. Errors in DNMT3A are common features of leukemia but little is known about how exactly they drive cancer development.

Jones and his collaborators, which include VAI Assistant Professor Evan Worden, Ph.D., hope to answer key questions about DNMT3A and its role in cancer. To do so, they will leverage VAI’s extensive research infrastructure, including its state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) suite. Cryo-EM enables scientists to visualize molecules at the near-atomic level, which provides deep insights into how they function in health and disease.

Jones joined VAI as its chief scientific officer in 2013, following 36 years at University of Southern California. Along with longtime collaborator Stephen Baylin, M.D., Jones co-chairs the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, a multi-institutional effort to evaluate combination therapies for cancer in clinical trials. He is a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AAACR), a fellow of the AACR Academy, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Jones and Baylin shared the Kirk A. Landon Award for Basic Cancer Research from AACR in 2009 and the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society in 2011.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award no. R35CA209859 (Jones). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

ABOUT VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE

Van Andel Institute (VAI) is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations through cutting edge biomedical research and innovative educational offerings. Established in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1996 by the Van Andel family, VAI is now home to more than 500 scientists, educators and support staff, who work with a growing number of national and international collaborators to foster discovery. The Institute’s scientists study the origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translate their findings into breakthrough prevention and treatment strategies. Our educators develop inquiry-based approaches for K-12 education to help students and teachers prepare the next generation of problem-solvers, while our Graduate School offers a rigorous, research-intensive Ph.D. program in molecular and cellular biology.