Van Andel Institute doctor awarded multi-million dollar grant for cellular communication research

Van Andel Institute

Dr. Stephanie Grainger/Courtesy of Van Andel Institute

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Van Andel Institute’s Stephanie Grainger, Ph.D., has been awarded a
$2,375,000, five-year Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. The grant will help Grainger’s research into Wnt, a vital molecular pathway, central to a host of important processes that guide the body’s early construction and continue throughout life. Wnt is a critical type of cellular communication that drives healthy development, like tissue regeneration but, when disrupted, can spur cancer, osteoporosis, heart conditions and other diseases.

“Much like the foreperson at a construction site, Wnt controls nearly everything the body does throughout
development: for example, it communicates where the head should go versus the feet and, in adults,
coordinates resources to heal wounds and replenish stem cells,” Grainger said. “I am honored to receive this
award, which will help us answer longstanding questions that have profound implications for correcting errors in the Wnt pathway as a means to treat disease.”

Wnt has long been studied by scientists as a potential target for new cancer therapies, but developing treatments has been difficult. The issue is in the understanding of the specific interactions between molecules in the vast Wnt network. Better insight could help scientists like Grainger develop highly targeted fixes for specific problems while leaving the rest of the pathway untouched, resulting in fewer side effects.

Grainger and her team will focus on two major players in the pathway: Wnt9a and Fzd9b. These molecules,
which are found on the outside of cells, interact to convey chemical messages to and from cells. What isn’t
clear, Grainger says, is how Wnt9a and Fzd9b enter the cell to deliver their information payload.

“The Wnt pathway operates in a careful balance — too much or too little Wnt activity can have devastating
consequences,” Grainger said. “Solving the exact mechanism by which Wnt9a and Fzd9b carry out their job
could have massive implications for therapeutic development and a ripple effect for understanding other parts of the pathway.”

Grainger joined the VAI’s Department of Biology in August. She’s the second investigator at the institute to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award in the last four years. The award is highly competitive and gives scientists “greater stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs.”

Learn more about Dr. Grainger and the research being done at The Van Andel Institute, here.

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