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. 

What we’re doing

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:

  • Building on the basics: From uncovering the causes of cancer to understanding the mechanisms that propel its spread, Institute scientists are dedicated to revealing the complex molecular machinery that underlies the disease.
  • Translating discovery: Institute scientists are committed to putting laboratory discoveries to work in the real world by helping to translate them into actionable new treatments that better combat cancer and save lives.
  • Moving new therapies into the clinic: VAI works closely with leading medical organizations in the U.S. and abroad to take new therapies into the doctor’s office through clinical trials, which are vital for ensuring new treatments are safe and effective.

Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team


Explainer: What is cancer? (VAI Voice blog)

Explainer: What is cancer metastasis? (VAI Voice blog)


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Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon) (Chief Scientific Officer)

Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc.

Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon)
VARI Chief Scientific Officer
Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Epigenetics
Focus area: Epigenetic therapies
Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon), is a pioneer in epigenetics, a growing field that explores how genes are regulated and for developing therapies for cancer and other diseases. His discoveries have helped usher in an entirely new class of drugs that have been approved to treat blood cancer and are being investigated in other tumor types. Jones is a past president of the American Association for Cancer Research, a Fellow of the AACR Academy, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Bart Williams, Ph.D. (Director, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology)

Bart Williams, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology
Professor, Program in Skeletal Disease and Tumor Microenvironment
Focus area: Cell signaling and carcinogenesis
Bart Williams, Ph.D., studies the building blocks of bone growth on behalf of the millions suffering from diseases such as osteoporosis. He seeks new ways of altering cell signaling pathways to encourage healthy bone development and deter cancer spread to the skeleton. Williams is director of Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology.

Stephen Baylin, M.D.

Baylin_Stephen_255x187Stephen Baylin, M.D.
Professor, Center for Epigenetics
CSO’s Scholar
Co-leader, VAI-SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team
Primary appointment: Johns Hopkins University
Focus area: Van Andel Institute-Stand Up to Cancer (VARI-SU2C) Epigenetics Dream Team
Stephen Baylin, M.D., studies the body’s genetic control systems—called epigenetics—searching for vulnerabilities in cancer. Baylin is a pioneer in this field, and was among the first to trace epigenetic causes of cancer. His studies have led to new therapies for breast, lung and colorectal cancers, among others. He is co-leader of the Van Andel Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, a Director’s Scholar at VAI and co-head of Cancer Biology at Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Brian Haab, Ph.D.

Haab_Brian_255x187Brian Haab, Ph.D.
Professor, Innovation and Integration Program, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology

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.

Russell Jones, Ph.D.

Russell (Rusty) Jones, Ph.D.
Program Lead, Metabolic and Nutritional Programming, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology
Focus area: Cancer and Immunometabolism
Dr. Russell Jones investigates metabolism at the cellular level to understand how it affects cell behavior and health, with a specific eye on cancer and the immune system. By revealing how cancer cells use metabolic processes to fuel their growth and spread, he hopes to develop new treatments that help patients by changing the standard of care for cancer.

Connie Krawczyk, Ph.D.

Connie Krawczyk, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Metabolic and Nutritional Programming, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology
Focus area: Immunology, epigenetics and metabolism
Dr. Connie Krawczyk investigates the links between metabolism, epigenetics and the immune system, with the goal of understanding how they work together to keep us healthy and, when things go wrong, to promote disease.

Peter W. Laird, Ph.D.

Laird_Peter_255x187Peter W. Laird, Ph.D.
Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D.

Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D.
Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Scott Rothbart, Ph.D.

Scott Rothbart, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Hui Shen, Ph.D

Hui Shen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Xiaobing Shi, Ph.D.

Xiaobing Shi, Ph.D.
Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Matt Steensma, Ph.D.

Matt Steensma, M.D.
Assistant Professor, Program in Skeletal Disease and Tumor Microenvironment, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology

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.

Tim Triche, Ph.D.

Tim Triche, Jr., Ph.D
Assistant Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Hong Wen, Ph.D.

Hong Wen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Center for Epigenetics

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.

Tao Yang, Ph.D.

Yang_Tao_255x187Tao Yang, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Program in Skeletal Disease and Tumor Microenvironment, Center for Cancer and Cell Biology

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.