The region’s growing reputation as a powerhouse in oncological research and treatment was the theme of September’s edition of the Amsterdam Life Sciences Café. During the event, two startups – one about to enter clinical testing and the other still in search of funding – illustrated how immunology is joining surgery, radiation and chemotherapy as part of the standard toolkit in the fight against cancer.
Life sciences gaining traction
The Amsterdam Economic Board’s Jeroen Maas opened the evening at Amsterdam Science. The Board organises the event alongside multinational professional services firm EY. Maas updated attendees about the Board’s continued efforts to develop Amsterdam into a world-leading medical data science hub. He spoke about mapping out the innovation ecosystem and bringing doctors and data scientists together through monthly meet-ups.
Maas also revealed that Smarthealthamsterdam.nl will serve as the “the landing zone for all data science and AI-related work around the life sciences. And we’re also signing a memorandum of understanding between top sector player, knowledge institutions and the City that we will all work together on the execution of the Life Sciences & Health Amsterdam Action Plan.”
“These are all signs that the life sciences are continuing to gain traction in the region.”
Personalised anticancer vaccines
The first presentation was by geneticist Ronald Plasterk. The prize-winning researcher, professor, author and former politician is now an entrepreneur. His company Frame Therapeutics seeks to deliver “personalised anticancer vaccines, available off-the-shelf, anywhere.”
Plasterk co-founded Frame Therapeutics just six months ago with “serial entrepreneur” Dinko Valerio (founder of Crucell and Rockstart mentor) and oncologist Bob Lowenberg. It develops vaccines based on the DNA composition of the individual tumours of cancer patients. It focuses on frame peptides (neoantigens that result from frameshift mutations in genes in the tumour). Already backed by private investors, human clinical trials start early next year.
Still in a celebratory mood, Plasterk said he’s finally able to pay himself thanks to the new funding. “Until now, I didn’t dare to pay myself: all those patent lawyers were very expensive,” he joked. As a result of the efficiency of new DNA-sequencing technology, Plasterk believes that thanks to he can create personalised vaccines within six weeks. And this is an acceptable time frame for most cancer patients.
Pumping up the immune system
Maarten Ligtenberg is an enthusiastic entrepreneur who’s a true believer in his company’s technology. However, compared to Frame, Immagene has an extensive but ground-breaking road ahead. It has treated tumours in animals, but Immagene is working on putting together a group of investors to push their efforts towards human clinical testing.
“We do genetic panning: sifting through all the genes to identify new targets and develop new medicines,” says Ligtenberg. “And we’re not only looking for weaknesses in the tumour cell but also the strengths in the immune cell.”
As a spin-off of the prestigious Netherlands Cancer Institute, Immagene has a solid pedigree. Ligtenberg founded the company with molecular oncologist Daniel Peeper and clinical researcher Christian Blank. Dinko Valerio is also on board as an adviser.
“I think Amsterdam needs more Dinkos,” says Ligtenberg. “The science here is incredible. We just need more entrepreneurs who can share their knowledge on how to push things along.”
In fact, Ligtenberg sees his technology and that of Frame’s being able to work in parallel one day. “I can’t cure those patients with an immune system that can’t see the cancer – there would be nothing to boost. But those patients could be vaccinated. However, if what Ronald has works, and what we have works, it’ll definitely work more potently together.”
Finally, Ligtenberg admits he doesn’t draw a salary yet: “I take vacation days so I can take the time to reach out to investors. But that’s my job right now: trying to help people understand the opportunities we offer.”