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Biotech Wednesday: Joining forces to outsmart cancer – new frontiers in cell therapy

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United by a desire to bring new cell therapies to patients, Oncode Institute and HollandBIO brought together academia, life sciences companies, clinicians and other stakeholders on November 20th 2019. This first of its kind event highlighted the great science and potential of the Netherlands to take lead in this field. In a packed Muntgebouw, prominent experts zoomed in on the different challenges they encounter bringing these products from bench to bedside. Will joining forces help us to outsmart cancer? The success of the first Oncode-HollandBIO event leads us to believe it does.

During their opening words, HollandBIO’s Annemiek Verkamman and Oncode’s Scientific Director Geert Kops stressed the importance of collaboration. By teaming up our communities, HollandBIO and Oncode can combine the strength of over 200 life sciences companies and 61 research groups of over 850 cancer researchers. The Biotech Wednesday on cell therapy is a first step in getting the two fields more familiar with one another.

During the first part of the program, the future of cancer therapies was highlighted from an academic perspective. Oncode Investigator prof. dr. Ton Schumacher (NKI) kicked off with a presentation on the current and future potential of adoptive T-cell therapies. With his involvement in CAR-T and TIL therapy and his work on finding solutions for off-the-shelf CAR-T and autologous TCR therapies, Ton set both a scientific and entrepreneurial example. Oncode Investigator prof. dr. Sjoerd van der Burg (LUMC), the event’s  next speaker, has equally high ambitions. He aims to outsmart cancer by working around one of its current immune escape routes. Sjoerd’s established work on a mechanism for an alternative antigen presenting pathway and he is figuring out the next steps to start a spin-off, with the support of Oncode Institute. With so many new treatment options coming through, Oncode Investigator dr. Sarah Derks (Amsterdam UMC) advocated a need for more physician-scientists to bridge the gap between science and clinic. Her plea? More time for basic science and research, increased institutional support and a stronger network. There should be more communication between scientists and physicians.

After a networking break, the second part of the programme focused on the industry’s perspective. Because once you’ve decided to establish a company, you’re up for a lot of challenges: production, investors, competitors, etc. Glycostem CEO Troels Jordansen explained what it takes to move innovation further from bench to bedside, such as building your own GMP – clean room space. He shared insights about challenges Glycostem faced, which important factors matter and which do not. The final notes about bringing a cell therapy product from idea to Dutch patients were shared by Novartis’ dr. Albert van Hell. From regulatory challenges to risk management plans, from prolonged follow-up requests to contractual and logistic challenges at the hospitals: being a frontrunner can be a demanding job.

Can collaboration bring cell therapy further? And if so, how? In a final panel discussion presided by Markwin Velders, chair of HollandBIO and Managing Director of Kite Pharma, the speakers shared their insights. All agreed that communication, trust and ambition are key to establish successful partnerships. The interests from different stakeholders do not always align and this is important to keep in mind when managing expectations. Above all, one thing stood out: we all need each other to bring innovative therapies to market for the benefits of the patients. The Oncode-HollandBIO event was a first effort to break the ice – and given the interest, shared ambition and enthusiasm, it most definitely won’t be the last.

Photograpy: © Nils van Houts