The enemy seems so invincible. In his sobering book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes, “In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer.”
Donald Vander Griend ’98 knows the statistics but is determined to make serious inroads on one form of cancer.
“I think we’ve made great progress in fighting prostate cancer,” he said. “The way I look at it is that if I’m not going to cure it, I’ll be teaching the next generation that will.”
Vander Griend is the director of urological research and an associate professor in the department of surgery at the Ben May Department of Cancer Research at the University of Chicago.
He is the principal investigator for his assembled team of researchers. That means he steers the research direction of the lab, mentors the team members, writes grant proposals and formulates papers.
His team consists of postdoctoral fellows, several graduate students at the university, a urology resident and one technician. In the summer, undergraduate students assist.
Together, they combat prostate cancer through prevention and therapeutic strategies, studying cancer cells and investigating new ways to attack prostate cancer cells or keep them from ever forming.
“The work is both enjoyable and frustrating,” said Vander Griend. “The technology is amazing and improves all the time. And team science and collaborations are the norm. But funding is abysmal, and it is difficult to practice new ideas without the resources.”
The puzzle of the commonality of male prostate failure is perplexing.
“We’re trying to find out why the prostate is so prone to disease,” he said. “One in six men will get prostate cancer, and all will deal with the complications of prostatic enlargement.”
He calls the work of research a “series of productive failures” and understands how one generation of researchers stands on the shoulders of those gone before—progress is a matter of “passing the baton along.”
As a young person, Vander Griend wanted to be an inventor—he loved his Legos—and then read something about genome sequencing that was making headlines at the time. That set him on a biology/chemistry track at Calvin. He credits biochemistry professor Larry Louters for helping things “click” for him.
“I feel as though the entire Calvin science faculty was about training us to be rigorous and thoughtful scientists, in fact to function as Christian citizens of science,” he said. “It was not an agonizing decision for me to go into medicine and research. I knew where God called.”
After earning a doctoral degree in cancer biology at the University of Chicago, Vander Griend was a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University doing four years of research in urology and oncology before returning to a faculty/research position at the University of Chicago.
Vander Griend’s interest in prostate cancer research is partly motivated by personal experience. In recent years, his father (Alvin Vander Griend ’58) and his father-in-law have both dealt with the challenge of this disease.
As a Christian, he sees faith and science as necessary partners, and while he does not observe life in his university’s labs as hostile to faith, he believes there is a need to increase the number of persons of spiritual conviction in research.
“I’d love to have more Calvin grads involved in this effort,” he said, noting the recent addition of Calvin Van Opstall ’15 to the university’s cancer biology research program.
Vander Griend recalled a family picture he treasures spanning three generations.
“What we’re after is to make each generation less afraid of cancer,” he said. “While a cure is always the final goal, at least our children can face a less daunting challenge.”