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News & Stories: 2007-08

Senior Researches Kidney Cancer at Van Andel Institute
April 14, 2008

Bill Wondergem with his mentor Bin Teh at the Van Andel Research InstituteBill Wondergem, 21, a Calvin biology major and biochemistry minor, has worked since his junior year as an intern in the lab of Bin Teh, a distinguished scientific investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) and a specialist in kidney cancer.

"Kidney cancer is the primary focus of our lab because Bin’s father died of the disease,” said Wondergem. “It’s a very deadly cancer. Surgery is the primary treatment, but if the cancer has spread too much, the chances of long term survival are not good.”

Wondergem, who first worked at the VARI as a first-year student at Calvin, said his research in Teh’s lab is a search for the genes that cause kidney cancer. “We identify oncogenes (genes with a DNA sequence that causes cancer) or tumor suppressors (genes that restrain cancer cell growth) that are deregulated in renal cell carcinoma.”

The research involves handling a lot of kidneys, said Wondergem. “We take both normal tissue and cancerous tissue. We can extract the DNA and RNA from both and compare them. We can look for mutations at the DNA level by sequencing the DNA. Or we can look at changes in expression at the RNA level.”

The work is exciting, he said. “You’re hunting for these genes, and you could find the gene that could be the target for the next big drug. The stakes are very high, and that makes the work very rewarding.”

The research also has a big payoff for cancer treatment—specifically chemotherapies, Wondergem said. Traditional chemotherapies, which kill both cancerous and healthy dividing cells, can be very toxic for cancer patients, causing excessive vomiting and hair loss. Teh’s lab focuses on “targeted therapies,” treatments that pinpoint only cancer cells. “By targeting genes specific to the tumor cells, we can avoid the negative or toxic side effects of the treatment.”

Wondergem says his stint at the VARI has stretched his capabilities. “I love working in the lab because Bin gives me so much freedom as a student. He gives me the opportunity to think for myself and determine which experiments need to be done. I think you learn a lot more that way than when you’re just following instructions from someone else.”

The VARI internship is a great opportunity for the many Calvin students who have pursued it, said Calvin biology professor John Ubels. “It gives students experience at a major research institute,  which is very good preparation for grad school,” he said. “And it has also been very useful for some of our students who have not gone on to grad school, but who have become fulltime research assistants there after graduation.”

Wondergem has set his sights on a medical career that includes a fair amount of the kind of research he learned at the institute. “I’d like to go into something that bridges the gap between the lab and the clinic,” he said. “Bringing discoveries made in the lab to clinically useful applications in the hospital is very important.”

Meanwhile, the sometime Calvin hockey player and tutor in the college’s department of academic services will continue working at the VARI for a year after his May graduation, continuing his current research and publishing the results. “After a few years of learning, you can finally contribute to the work,” said Wondergem. “I’ve learned enough of the ropes to contribute meaningfully.”

~Written by Communications and Marketing senior writer Myrna Anderson

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