Skeletal Diseases


Skeletal diseases are a diverse and often debilitating group of conditions that affect the bones. They include a broad range of disorders, such as:

  • Sarcomas, which are cancers that begin in the bone and connective tissues. There are many different types of sarcomas; some, like Ewing sarcoma, almost exclusively affect children.
  • Bone metastases, which are cancers spread to the skeleton from another part of the body, such as the breast or prostate. Once in the bone, these cancers become much more difficult to treat.
  • Osteoarthritis, a common degenerative joint disease caused by the breakdown of cartilage, a shock-absorber-like tissue between the bones. More than 30 million people in the U.S. have osteoarthritis.
  • Osteoporosis, a disease that causes the bones to become porous and weak, resulting in painful breaks that may be caused by something as simple as a sneeze or gentle bump.
  • Skeletal dysplasias, a group of more than 300 conditions that negatively affect bone and joint development and cause lifelong problems for patients.

These conditions can be extremely painful and cause loss of mobility, which significantly reduces quality of life. While some treatments do exist for these diseases, more research is needed to find new prevention strategies and improved therapies.

What we’re doing

Scientists in Van Andel Institute’s (VAI) Center for Cancer and Cell Biology study the full spectrum of bone biology, from the mechanisms that give rise to healthy bone tissue to those that cause disease. They work to translate their findings into new strategies to combat these often tough-to-treat conditions by:

  • Understanding the basics: VAI scientists are studying the differences between healthy and abnormal bone to pinpoint how skeletal diseases arise and how they can be treated.
  • Searching for new cancer treatments: VAI scientists are studying cancers that originate in the bone in an effort to better combat these painful and challenging malignancies.
  • Investigating ways to beat bone metastases: Understanding why some cancers — such as those that start in the breast, prostate and lung — are highly predisposed to spread and grow in the skeleton will help scientists develop better therapies that enhance the quality of life for patients.
  • Exploring the causes of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis: Both of these diseases contribute significantly to loss of mobility and quality of life. A precise understanding of the mechanisms that lead to their onset will give scientists powerful new tools for prediction, prevention and treatment.

333 Bostwick Ave. NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Driving & Parking Directions
Phone: 616.234.5000
Fax: 616.234.5001



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.

Matt Steensma, M.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.

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.