Enduring Legacy – the Van Andel Institute is a worldwide independent research organization

Jay Van Andel

“Through the Van Andel Institute, I have hope that the material blessings that God has bestowed upon me during my life can be used to reduce human suffering and extend lives.”

For years Betty and I have contributed to the work of charities, hospitals, schools, and other worthwhile institutions through the Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation. It’s really more of a family foundation now, because our children have been brought into the decision-making process and are now helping to review contributions from the foundation. In this way the legacy of philanthropy is being taught to the next generation.

The highlight of the foundation is now the Van Andel Institute, a worldwide independent research organization dedicated to preserving, enhancing, and expanding the frontiers of medical science to benefit mankind. It will represent one of the largest private philanthropic activities in medical research history, aiming to achieve a scientific quality comparable to the Howard Hughes Institute and as a source of medical breakthroughs in the 21st century. The Van Andel Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors includes over 100 years of collective scientific experience among its five members.

Some people might wonder why, [because of my] great disdain for mainstream medical care, the Van Andel Institute for medical research is such a large part of my estate planning. In my mind, it’s not an inconsistency, because while I don’t hold traditional methods of medical treatment in particularly high regard, medical research is fascinating to me. The human body is a wondrous creation of God, and learning all we can about it is obviously important. Since my early days with Nutrilite, I’ve been very interested in how nutrition affects health. The unsurpassed assembly of scientific knowledge at the Van Andel Institute should yield real progress in medical science, with important implications for heart disease, cancer, and cognitive and nervous-system diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Currently, there is no definite cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists do not yet know what causes Alzheimer’s, though researchers are investigating possible causes for the neurological damage, like viruses, chemical deficiencies, environmental toxins, immune system deficiencies, and genetic abnormalities. The disease, which is the fourth leading killer of adults in the United States, afflicts about five million Americans and brings grief and pain and loss to friends and family members. Approximately 10 percent of Americans over 65 have what is probably Alzheimer’s, and for those over 85, the percentage rises even more. It develops gradually, causing the victim to lose intellectual capacity and become confused and disoriented. At first, the only signs may be an increased difficulty finding words or finishing thoughts. Friends and relatives may begin to notice memory loss, impaired judgment, and a change in personality. Some forgetfulness is part of the normal aging process, but the atrophying of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease may eventually cause its victims to become lost in familiar surroundings, forget names of close relatives, lose the ability to read or write, and forget how to tell time or use a key. Many become incapable of taking care of themselves and often require 24-hour care and supervision.

Parkinson’s disease, unlike Alzheimer’s disease, is a motor-system disorder. While cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s reduce the victim’s ability to think or remember, motor-system disorders affect movement or speech. Parkinson’s disease can cause stiffness, shaking or trembling, slowness of movement, and impaired coordination and balance. Diagnosis of Parkinson’s is difficult, but estimates show that more than half a million Americans are afflicted with the disease. Pope John Paul, Billy Graham, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Johnny Cash are reported to have it. Scientists have found that Parkinson’s is caused by a loss of certain cells in a part of the brain associated with muscle activity, but the reason for this cell death is as yet unknown. A relatively new theory proposes that some Parkinson’s victims may have a genetic predisposition to the disease. Treatment commonly includes medication and may involve surgery in rare cases.

As I entertained thoughts about the potential for medical progress, I realized that our family had a unique opportunity to pass on a legacy to all humanity that few envision and even fewer can afford. I entrusted the realization of the most important part of my legacy to my youngest son, Dave, and to Dr. Luis Tomatis.

Dave, who serves as chairman of the Van Andel Institute, is guiding its operation and overseeing the construction of the impressive new building. While all of my children have had some input, Dave has been especially charged with seeing that my intentions for the institute are carried out. By keeping members of the Van Andel family closely involved, the institute is kept as near as possible to my purpose in founding the institute.

My friend, Luis Tomatis, M.D., a former thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon, laid the foundation for the Van Andel Institute as president. After retiring in 1995 from a distinguished career as a heart surgeon at Butterworth Hospital here in Grand Rapids, Dr. Tomatis devoted his time to developing the institute. He consulted 146 experienced researchers from the Ureter States and 16 foreign countries, visited a dozen similar research facilities, and laid out the organizational form of the institute. In the summer of 1996, Dr. Tomatis convened 16 scientists in Grand Rapids as informal advisors to the fledgling institute. This group gave the institute its first direction, advising us to pursue molecular biology and genetics as our first avenue of research. Six months later, Dr. Tomatis had gathered together a world-class Board of Scientific Advisors that would secure the scientific quality of the institute’s research.

The board consists of brilliant, visionary individuals recognized by their peers as top in their fields. Among those contacted was Michael Brown, M.D., from the University of Texas Medical Center at Dallas, who, in association with Joseph Goldstein, M.D., won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1985 for their work in the metabolism of cholesterol.

Once he became thoroughly convinced that we were determined to create an institute that would eventually be among the best in the world, he turned his inexhaustible energies as chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors to enroll his partner of 25 years and co-Nobel laureate Joseph Goldstein, M.D., of the University of Texas Medical Center, Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Also brought on board were Richard Axel, M.D., of Columbia University; Daniel Nathans, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Phillip A. Sharp, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The last two, also Nobel laureates, help form an impressive think tank. They are charged to select, within the next five years, the other areas of scientific research for the Van Andel Research Institute and help us get the Grand Rapids campus under way.

The excitement we all felt as our plans began to take shape was contagious. At the December 1996 press conference announcing the appointment of these scientists, Dr. Michael Brown remarked:

“[W]e are present at the birth of something that will live long after all of us…. We hope to create an institute that will apply the strongest aspects of basic science directly to the prevention and cure of human disease. It’s very rare that any enterprise of this scope has ever begun. This is not an everyday occurrence on a national scale or a worldwide scale. This is as big an event for the world as it is for Grand Rapids, because we think that this institute has the capacity in its final form to be the leading institute of medical research in the world.”

This Board of Scientific Advisors immediately began to focus on some promising avenues of research. There are many well-funded disease-oriented research efforts, but they believe that science should now study the basic mechanisms of cell function. We need to know how cells and tissues normally function, and why they cease to function or act in such an abnormal way that they produce disease and death.

Previous research has already laid the groundwork for what our board proposes to do. As scientists began to study basic cell mechanisms, they found out that apparently dissimilar afflictions like hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), Alzheimer’s, and arthritis may have the common factor of chronic inflammation. And retinitis pigmentosa, a very common cause of blindness in the elderly, could hold one of the answers to our questions about cancer. Retinitis pigmentosa is caused by the overgrowth of microscopic blood vessels (capillaries) at the end of the nerve that transmits the images from the eye to the brain. In cancer patients, the only capillaries that grow are in the tumor tissue. If we can find out how these tiny vessels are stimulated to grow, we may also find the way to stop them from growing. We could starve to death the cancer that depends on them to get nutrition. Normal tissues would remain unaffected. The reverse mechanism could be used to stimulate the growth of small vessels in order to avoid or limit the damage of heart attacks.

The medical research center will begin its operations with a program dedicated to molecular and genetic basic science and to clinical research. The ultimate goal will be human disease prevention and treatment. Dr. Brown and the other scientists on the board of advisors believe that by better understanding each individual’s unique genetic makeup, specific recommendations can be made to avoid health problems later in life. Dr. Brown explains the hope the institute offers:

“What we see ahead of us is a world in which people can tailor their environment to match what their genes demand, so that if you discover that you have a particularly high risk of a particular kind of cancer, for example, based on your genetic makeup, you can take the right combination of nutrients or vitamins that will act for you to prevent that disease…. In the past we’ve had to have a one-size-fits-all set of recommendations for everybody. For instance, we recommend that everybody be on a low-fat diet, even though doctors know that two-thirds of people don’t need a low-fat diet. The problem is that we don’t know how to identify the two-thirds…. Each of us is a bio-chemical individual, and modern molecular biology and genetics has taught us how to analyze the genes of each person in order to figure out what is the most optimal for them. We can’t do it with any completeness today, but maybe in the next 20 years, with the Van Andel Institute, we can start to achieve some of that.”

As a first step, the institute will seek out the best brains in medical research to work in a state-of-the-art, well-funded headquarters facility. Then the institute will branch to other campuses dedicated to other research problems, locating wherever the best scientists and support facilities are located.

Research into the causes and potential cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases is promising but requires much more support. As the demographics of the United States change to include a larger proportion of elderly people, I expect that Americans will be willing to fund efforts to reduce the terrible effects of these diseases. I hope that my own contributions to medical research will be followed by increased support from other entrepreneurs, charitable foundations, and concerned individuals.

The organization and private funding of the Van Andel Institute’s research will make it uniquely effective. Whereas much medical research today is made less effective by the continual, energy-consuming search for federal grants, the Van Andel Institute will be able to undertake high-risk, comprehensive research without enslaving itself to that continuous waste of their time and minds. Rather than funneling resources to lobbying efforts or wasting them on commonplace research, Van Andel Institute funds will flow directly to its frontier research.

My hope is that the research done at the Van Andel Institute will be truly pathbreaking. The focus will be on those questions about human health that are passed over by traditional research institutions–those areas that are underresearched and underfunded because of the outcome uncertainty involved. The advantages for us are, first, that we are not duplicating efforts, and second, by pushing out the frontiers of science, we could reap significant rewards missed by other institutions. Because the private funding of the institute allows it to take a long-term view, researchers are free to pursue a promising line of research even if it doesn’t end in a breakthrough. Solid, well-planned science that stops short of a breakthrough is still good science that may help others down the road to a great discovery.

Realizing that the Van Andel Institute would create employment and trigger economic growth wherever it is located, I directed that Grand Rapids be the permanent home of the Van Andel Institute headquarters. Furthermore, to help revitalize the city’s core, I asked that the building be constructed downtown. Besides its encouragement of local business, the structure will represent a friendly attitude toward hospitals, universities, and the whole community. We will open its auditorium and public spaces to the social, religious, intellectual, and artistic forces that shape the city.

I envision a living institution that gives summer employment to high school students to motivate them in scientific paths in a superb learning environment. I envision our scientists at all levels becoming involved with the local schools and colleges, and local science teachers getting further continuous updates in our institute. I envision scientists from all over the world coming to work in our institute, and I envision national and international congresses held in my native town, drawn by a leading medical research center. And I envision the Lord’s hand shaping this, our legacy.

Consistent with the quality of all the aspects of the institute we engaged Rafael Vinoly, the visionary architect who designed the Tokyo International Forum, a 1.4-million-square-foot structure that has become that city’s trademark. Vinoly has several massive projects in different stages of realization: a $150 million courthouse for the city of New York, a 30,000-seat stadium for Princeton University, and research institutes for Columbia University and Professor Montaignier of the City University of New York (who discovered the AIDS virus). We were impressed by his insatiable curiosity, creative ingenuity, and attention to detail. Vinoly has designed a beautiful, state-of-the-art laboratory for us. It will be built in two phases. The first phase, a 100,000-square-foot building, began in February 1998 with a scheduled completion date at the end of 1999. It is our hope that the millennium will find us up and running.

In May 1998, the Van Andel Research Institute recruited a very talented researcher and organizer, George Vande Woude, Ph.D., as its first research director.

Dr. Vande Woude is an internationally recognized expert in molecular oncology (the study of cell component behavior in cancer). He comes from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, where he is developing strategies to reorganize their intramural research. This division, the largest basic science research enterprise in the world, is composed of 32 laboratories and more than 180 senior researchers dedicated to understanding the mechanisms of the cell function that can ultimately be used to produce new cancer treatments. A graduate of Rutgers University, Dr. Vande Woude received many honors and awards including election to the National Academy of Sciences.

I’m confident that he is the appropriate person to lead the scientific efforts of our institute.

Love Grows Deeper

Part of my intense interest in medical research and the Van Andel Institute stems from my concern over Betty’s Alzheimer’s disease, Rich’s recurrent heart problems, and my own recent battles with physiological problems. I know what it is like to see loved ones suffer from the failings of the human body and to witness their recovery under the care of skillful physicians. Through the Van Andel Institute, I have hope that the material blessings that God has bestowed upon me during my life can be used to reduce human suffering and extend lives.

In June of 1997 Rich underwent heart transplant surgery. Many years of cardiovascular problems had left Rich’s heart permanently damaged, and the risky surgery was necessary to give Rich more years of precious life. The long, agonizing months of waiting for a heart were finally rewarded, and Rich made dramatic progress in the weeks after the surgery. I am convinced that his optimism and strong faith, and the prayers of thousands of caring people, carried Rich through this very difficult time.

Though Rich was in London for the surgery, we kept in close contact during the wait for the heart and the recovery. As we talked, I found that the decades have strengthened the unique friendship that Rich and I have. God has had his hand on both our lives, and he has blessed that friendship in a way that very few other people can understand. For more than half a century, we have experienced good times and bad times together, and all of it has worked out to the glory of God. As health problems afflict both of us, it strikes me that God has given us human friendship to remind us of his continuous presence with us in times of trouble.

To order a copy of An Enterprising Life, send $24.00 (plus $2.25 s&h) to: AFPM, P.O. Box 1144, Dept. 1198, Indianapolis, IN 46206, or call 800-558-2376. (Allow 3-4 weeks for delivery.)

From An Enterprising Life, by Jay Van Andel

COPYRIGHT 1999 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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