Van Andel Institute scientists model complex cancer cell behavior

Cell cannibalism process implicated in human disease determined through collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory

Grand Rapids, Mich. (March 14, 2013) – Van Andel Institute (VAI) researchers recently published a mathematical model of autophagy, a complex process involved in determining cell death or survival.  The autophagic process has been implicated in human diseases such as neurodegeneration, and has recently become a dynamic topic in the field of cancer research.

Autophagy is sometimes referred to as cannibalism within the cell and is a Greek term that literally translates as “self-eating.”  This complex cellular behavior generates a multitude of questions and challenges for researchers.  Jeffrey P. MacKeigan, Ph.D., senior author of the study, recognized that understanding cellular events requires more than basic biology experiments and embarked on a collaboration with computational scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

“By joining forces and taking a multidisciplinary approach, we aim to more rapidly advance our knowledge of autophagy and translate those findings into a positive impact on human health,” said MacKeigan, Head of VAI’s Laboratory of Systems Biology.

The mathematical model, published by the collaborative team in the journal Autophagy, uses an adaptation of the Monte Carlo method, a type of computational algorithm relying on random sampling that Los Alamos scientists used after World War II to assist with the complexities of nuclear fission devices like the atomic bomb.   In partnership with William Hlavacek, Ph.D., at LANL, MacKeigan’s team used the model to make accurate predictions about autophagy in cancer cells.

“These studies mark the first steps toward a more robust and comprehensive model,” MacKeigan said. “We hope to further cultivate the model in order to inform future treatment strategies, and are working to secure funding to make these enhancements.”

The role of autophagy in cancer and other human diseases is yet to be completely understood.  To tackle this and other biological challenges, MacKeigan and his lab use a “systems biology” approach.  By leveraging an arsenal of cutting-edge methods and collaborating with experts in complementary fields, these researchers are working to make significant contributions to the study of autophagy.

Katie Martin, Ph.D., lead author of the study and scientific project leader in VAI’s Laboratory of Systems Biology, explains the research in the context of human health:

“Cancer cells can often adapt to survive chemotherapy,” Martin said. “If our model can predict how autophagy contributes to this survival, we could provide valuable information for the design of more effective therapies – and that’s exciting!”


Van Andel Institute

Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996, Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent research and educational organization based in Grand Rapids, Mich., dedicated to preserving, enhancing and expanding the frontiers of medical science, and to achieving excellence in education by probing fundamental issues of education and the learning process.  Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research arm, is dedicated to studying the genetic, cellular and molecular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and working to translate those findings into effective therapies. This is accomplished through the work of more than 200 researchers in on-site laboratories and in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Find out more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting