Van Andel Research Institute cancer study offers a resource on more than 1,000 human genes

Grand Rapids, Mich. (May 19, 2014) – A recent study by Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) scientists promises to be an invaluable resource for disease researchers for years to come by providing new insight into cellular energy. The new report, “A mitochondrial RNAi screen defines cellular bioenergetics determinants and identifies an adenylate kinase as a key regulator of ATP levels,” catalogs more than 1,000 genes that may be responsible for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and more.

The manuscript revolves around mitochondria, which are known as the “powerhouse” of the cell and produce the majority of cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Mitochondria act as the cell’s engine, gene products act as the different engine components and nutrients or sugars act as the fuel. VARI’s study focuses on the different cellular engine components as well as several fuel types that make the engine run. Prior to this study, scientists had limited knowledge about how gene products worked together to produce energy.

Descriptions of the major gene products imported into mitochondria that create energy are available, but they comprise only about 10 percent of the total number of mitochondrial proteins that exist,” said Dr. Nathan Lanning, a postdoctoral fellow in VARI’s Laboratory of Systems Biology and lead author on the paper. “The study’s automated methodology allowed us to examine more than 1,000 genes efficiently.”

The result is one of the first catalogs of more than 1,000 genes and their function in cellular energy production, providing researchers a useful reference for investigating normal and diseased cells. Mitochondria play an important role in cancer, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other conditions because the health of the mitochondria and the amount of energy produced is a central component of the disease process. Cancer cells, for instance, over-produce energy and drive metabolism to support their rapid growth.

“Deciphering the function of genes is critical to preventing and treating human disease. Mitochondria are essential to common diseases and also more rare pediatric diseases,” said Dr. Jeffrey MacKeigan, VARI associate professor and senior author on the paper. “Our next steps will be to take these gene products and develop therapeutics targeting them to ultimately impact these diseases.”

This research project was conducted at VARI in collaboration with scientists from Calvin College and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and was published in the journal Cell Reports. Lanning will present the study at the upcoming Metabolism, Diet and Disease Conference at Georgetown University at the end of May.

The complete paper can be found at: Learn more about the work of VARI scientists and support their research at


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Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996, Van Andel Institute is an independent research and educational organization based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Through biomedical research and science education, Van Andel Institute is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Find out more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®