In 2018, an estimated 17 million people globally were diagnosed with cancer, a catch-all name for more than 100 different diseases characterized by uncontrolled, invasive cell growth.
Although cancer types differ in many ways, they all have one thing in common — they result from abnormal changes to the DNA, the genetic instruction manual that makes us who we are. These changes, called mutations, interfere with the body’s built-in biological safeguards, allowing malignant cells to replicate and spread unchecked, eventually interfering with important processes that keep us healthy.
By better understanding the complex causes that give rise to cancer and the mechanisms that allow it to propagate, scientists are working to find ways to better prevent, diagnose and treat these devastating diseases. To date, their efforts have led to significant improvements in cancer care, which have resulted in an increase in five-year survival rates, from 48 percent in 1975 to nearly 69 percent in 2008.
But there is still much more work to be done. By 2030, experts estimate the number of people diagnosed with cancer will jump to more than 21 million worldwide, due in large part to a growing, aging global population and lifestyle factors such as poor diet. Research into the root causes of cancer, paired with robust efforts to translate these discoveries into the clinic, are critical for ensuring healthier lives for current and future generations.
Scientists in the Institute’s Center for Epigenetics and Center for Cancer and Cell Biology are tackling cancer on all sides, from basic research aimed at uncovering its origins to clinical trials designed to investigate promising new therapies today. Their goal? To fight cancer by:
Explainer: What is cancer? (VAI Voice blog)
Explainer: What is cancer metastasis? (VAI Voice blog)
Focus area: Cancer immunodiagnostics
Brian Haab, Ph.D., searches for new ways to diagnose and stratify pancreatic cancer based on the chemical fingerprints tumors leave behind. Part of the problem Haab aims to solve is that cancers often look and behave normally—until after they’ve started making people sick. Haab is sleuthing out clues to build a library of diagnostic tools that will help providers diagnose tumors earlier and optimize treatment.
Focus area: Cancer epigenetics
Peter W. Laird, Ph.D., seeks a detailed understanding of the molecular foundations of cancer with a particular focus on identifying crucial epigenetic alterations that convert otherwise healthy cells into cancer cells. He is widely regarded as an international leader in this effort and has helped design some of the world’s state-of-the-art tools to aid in epigenetics research. Laird is a principal investigator for the National Cancer Institute’s Genome Data Analysis Network and is a professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Epigenetics. He also played a leadership role in The Cancer Genome Atlas, a multi-institutional effort to molecularly map cancers.
Focus area: Tumor microenvironment and metastasis
Xiaohong Li, Ph.D., studies when various cancers, particularly prostate and breast cancer cells, migrate from their original site and spread to the bone. These cells stay dormant and might wake up years later or grow-up to bone metastases, cause debilitating pain and are exceedingly difficult to treat. Li hopes that a better understanding metastatic cancers will lead to new diagnostic tests and targeted therapies.
Focus area: Epigenetic pathways in disease
Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D., studies how the body switches genes on and off, a biological process called methylation that, when faulty, can lead to cancer or other diseases. His studies range from the effect of tobacco smoke on genetic and epigenetic systems to the discovery of a mechanism that may help protect the brain from neurodegeneration. Pfeifer’s studies have implications across a range of diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and many others.
Focus area: Chromatin and epigenetic regulation
Scott Rothbart, Ph.D., studies the ways in which cells pack and unpack DNA. This elegant process twists and coils roughly 2 meters of unwound DNA into a space less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. Although this process is impressive, it is also subject to errors that can cause cancer and other disorders. Rothbart seeks new targets for drug development in this process.
Focus area: Epigenomic analysis in human disease
Hui Shen, Ph.D., develops new approaches to cancer prevention, detection and treatment by studying the interaction between genes and their control systems, called epigenetics. Her research focuses on women’s cancers, particularly ovarian cancer, and also has shed new light on the underlying mechanisms of other many cancer types, including breast, kidney and prostate cancers.
Focus area: Chromatin, post-translational modifications, epigenetics, cancer
Xiaobing Shi, Ph.D., investigates the mechanisms that regulate DNA and gene expression in an effort to better understand how they impact cancer development. He is a professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Epigenetics.
Focus area: Musculoskeletal oncology
Matt Steensma, M.D., studies the genetic and molecular factors that cause benign tumors to become cancers to find vulnerabilities that may be targeted for treatment. As a scientist at VARI and practicing surgeon at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, he is committed to translating scientific discoveries into treatments that improve patients’ lives.
Focus area: Leukemia, biostatistics, computational biology, next-generation sequencing
As a statistician and computational biologist with an interest in clonal evolution and cancers of the blood, Dr. Tim Triche, Jr.’s, work focuses on wedding data-intensive molecular phenotyping to adaptive clinical trial designs, in an effort to accelerate the pace of drug targeting and development in rare or refractory diseases.
Focus area: Chromatin, transcription, histone modifications, epigenetics, leukemia, pediatric cancers
Hong Wen, Ph.D., investigates the fundamental mechanisms of pediatric cancers caused by dysregulation of epigenetic regulators, in hopes of developing new, improved therapies for these devastating diseases. She is an associate professor in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Epigenetics.
Focus area: Skeletal biology
Tao Yang, Ph.D., studies the signaling systems that govern skeletal stem cells and the role they play in diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Bones are the largest producer of adult stem cells, which mature into cartilage, fat or bone tissue—a process that falters with age. Yang seeks a better understanding of these systems in search of new treatments for degenerative bone disorders and other skeletal aging.