GRAND RAPIDS — Over the course of four years, Michigan State University researchers managed to take about $300,000 and turn it into more than $4.5 million.
Using seven grants received from the Saint Mary’s Foundation, MSU’s College of Human Medicine hired junior researchers to conduct basic research that generated the data needed to land funding from the National Institutes of Health and private foundations to do broader studies.
The ability to leverage the early Saint Mary’s Foundation funding awarded in the years after MSU’s College of Human Medicine relocated to Grand Rapids is one example of how a promise made years ago is coming true: That having a medical school in the region would lead to much more medical research conducted locally.
“That was always what the hope was,” said Jack Lipton, chair of the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine who relocated his research team to MSU in 2009 from the University of Cincinnati.
In that time, Lipton’s department has brought more than $20 million in NIH research funding to Grand Rapids, “and we’re not stopping.”
“Things are moving at a pretty good clip here,” he said. “We’ve been successful.”
Lipton, whose work focuses on neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury, credits the medical school’s research funding to partnerships that MSU formed years ago with Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Van Andel Institute and Spectrum Health.
“You kind of sweat in the early years when you make a promise about what you’re trying to do and you do hope that it comes to fruition because nothing is certain,” Lipton said. “Funding isn’t certain, keeping people here that you value isn’t certain, changes in leadership at the different community partner institutions is not certain and priorities can change.
“We were able to create these agreements early on and I think everyone’s been good to their word. We’ve tried to demonstrate our usefulness and the importance of the basic and translational science research that we do to our community partners. It takes a long time, but it’s paying off.”
One example of the payoff is the $6.7 million that MSU’s Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine in Grand Rapids has received since July 2015 through 11 federal and foundation grants to support research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
The ultimate goal of the research efforts is to move discoveries made in the lab to the clinical level and develop new therapies that are tested locally, an effort that Lipton calls a “much heavier lift.”
“We’re moving a lot of initiatives forward like that,” he said.
One of them is a partnership between MSU and the Van Andel Institute to repurpose an antidepressant drug to see if it can slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. MSU has secured $2.4 million in NIH funding to conduct the research.
‘STEPPING UP’ AT VAI
MSU is not alone in increasing the flow of NIH funding to Grand Rapids. Since 2014, Van Andel Institute has nearly tripled NIH funding from $3 million annually to $8.8 million this year.
Peter Jones, director of research and chief scientific officer at VAI who came Grand Rapids in early 2014 from the University of Southern California, attributes the increased NIH funding to the recruitment over the years of scientific talent and the institute’s growth.
In many instances, researchers brought federal funding with them to VAI. MSU faculty members who have joint appointments also have been “stepping up to the plate” and securing grant funding for research projects with the institute, Jones said.
“We can expect to see a lot more of that in the future” as more research talent relocates to Grand Rapids, Jones said.
VAI plans an aggressive recruitment push to bring aboard another 20 principal investigators in the next six to eight years and to collaborate with MSU. The institute presently has 31 principal investigators.
Recruiting scientific talent has become an easier pitch thanks to the research and clinical buildup that has occurred in Grand Rapids over the last decade or so and the partnerships that have been formed. Jones noted how he recently received three separate letters in a week from principal investigators around the U.S. inquiring about research positions at VAI.
“There’s no doubt that the word is now out that there’s something happening here at the institute,” Jones said. “We’re working on the principle here that we’re developing a gravitational pull.”
Adding to that pull is MSU’s new $88.1 million Grand Rapids Research Center down Michigan Street from VAI. The MSU facility is due to open in late 2017 and will eventually house dozens of research teams.
Jones expects that the progress Grand Rapids has made in becoming a destination for research talent can combine with the new MSU center to create a greater lure for the region. Jones called the Grand Rapids Research Center “absolutely crucial” to VAI’s development.
“We’re really at what we consider the inflection point. We really are good and we’re going to go for great,” he said. “We have the critical mass now to go to the next level.”
GROWING INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL
The draw goes beyond research talent. The buildup over the last decade now makes it a little easier to recruit medical talent to Grand Rapids as well.
Spectrum Health and Mercy Health Saint Mary’s have steadily built their clinical expertise and specialties over the years. The ability to offer specialists the opportunity to teach at the MSU medical school and conduct research in addition to their clinical appointment has helped to draw specialists to Grand Rapids, said David Baumgartner, chief medical officer at Mercy Health.
Baumgartner cites as just one example the presence of three neuro-ophthalmologists in town today. A decade ago, there were none.
“We have a pool of intellectual capital that we never had before,” he said.
Years ago when Baumgartner was trying to recruit a medical specialist or subspecialist to move to Grand Rapids, their “first response was, ‘Where?’”
“You had to explain it to them,” he said. “We have people calling us now and say, ‘We heard there are some really cool things going on. I’d like to be part of that. Do you have any positions available?’
“That’s really been cool to be in a situation now where we’re being recognized around the country as a place to be. That allows us to continually ratchet up the quality of the people we’re looking at and be selective.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from its original version.