GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s a question we have all asked ourselves throughout our lives, what if. What if we had done something differently or chosen something else, would our lives be any different? Dr. J. Andrew Pospisilik at the Van Andel Institute is committed to finding that answer when it comes to our health. Dr. Pospisilik, along with Dr. Joseph Nadeau at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, was awarded $9.6 million as part of a five-year Transformative Research Award from the National Institutes of Health.

The award was given based on a set of questions, according to the VAI: “If you were born multiple times under the exact same circumstances, would you turn out to be the same person each time? And if not, what implications could the differences have for your health?”

The answers, both doctors say, could fundamentally change our understanding of health and disease. What’s found could give new answers for how to fight diseases like cancer, obesity, and a long list of other health concerns. Although it may sound like something out of Groundhog’s Day, understanding how “probabilistic” variation influences health before birth and throughout life has the “potential to create new paradigms or challenge existing ones”, according to the NIH.

“In some ways, our health is like a game of dice in which chance, or ‘variation,’ plays a major role. We
want to understand exactly how variation defines our health and how we can leverage it to combat
disease,” Pospisilik said. “As scientists, we’re trained to see variation as ‘error,’ but we believe that it is
actually a necessary and vital biological regulatory process. We are grateful to the National Institutes
of Health Common Fund for its support of this exciting project. These high-risk, high-reward funding
mechanisms from the NIH are a rare opportunity to peek into the unknown — to remind ourselves
how little we actually know.”

Through new technology and techniques, Dr. Pospisilik and Dr. Nadeau will try to learn, find and analyze the genetic and epigenetic factors that control variation patterns and link them to their effects. The VAI says by the end of the study, the team hopes to identify new sets of disease-related genes, delineate subtypes of disease, and better understand how the complex interaction between genetics and epigenetics impacts health.

“Our genes and our environment are just 50% of what makes us who we are,” Nadeau said. “We want
to understand what that other 50% is so that someday we may be able to predict whether early
medical interventions or lifestyle changes could improve our chances for a healthy life.”