The development of a medicine takes on average 10 to 15 years, from the first scientific insights obtained in the laboratory, to the moment that patients can have access to it. However, it is a common occurrence that a drug candidate is not effective enough, or it does not reach the right patient for other reasons during this lengthy process. Low success rates due to often late failures in drug development come at the price of high investments that ultimately do not lead to new drugs for patients. The current development process of anti-cancer drugs is therefore expensive, takes too long, and usually works only for a subset of the intended target patients. Oncode-PACT aims to provide solutions to these problems.
Oncode-PACT has the ambition to develop new demonstrably effective cancer drugs faster and more cost-effectively. The medical need is urgent, because cancer remains the number one cause of death in our country. Alain Kummer, Managing Director Oncode Institute and Chairman of Oncode-PACT, explains: “Oncode-PACT places the patient at the center of the entire drug development chain. In the current situation, the preclinical development process is still insufficiently connected with the clinical practice, and we focus on the patient too late in the drug development process. By deploying patient data and tissues from patients early in the development process – for example organoid technology and artificial intelligence – it is possible to assess whether a potential drug could be effective and safe much earlier in the process than is currently possible, and with greater certainty. In addition, animal testing can be decreased with this new approach.”
This way, Oncode-PACT brings the patient into the lab. This reduces the chance that drug candidates drop out during late-stage clinical studies. With the approach envisioned by Oncode-PACT, it will be clearer before the start of clinical research, in which patient group the greatest effectiveness can be expected and under which circumstances. This makes it possible to approach the important phase of clinical research in a more targeted and faster way.
Kummer continues: “Global sales of innovative cancer drugs and contract research for drug development present enormous economic opportunities for the Netherlands. Dutch knowledge institutions and (SME) companies will have access to the expertise and facilities offered by Oncode-PACT and will be able to go through the preclinical development process faster and more effectively. This way, Oncode-PACT will create new business, knowledge and technology in drug development and contract research, strengthen the business climate for foreign companies and develop affordable cancer treatments.”
The way of working within Oncode-PACT ensures that patients receive more viable treatments as early as possible. Thanks to this new way of drug development, it will be possible in the future to offer tailor-made treatment at a much earlier stage of a patient’s disease and make a difference that way.
Various researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute are involved in Oncode-PACT. John Haanen is a fellow workstream leader of the cell and gene therapy component, and Lodewyk Wessels leads the Artificial Intelligence workstream. Other parties involved include Inge Jedema, Bastiaan Nuijen, Anastassis Perrakis, and Roderick Beijersbergen.
Cell and gene therapy is one of the promising types of advanced therapies that will be developed further and much more rapidly through Oncode-PACT. This therapy employs the body’s own immune cells as a “living cure”. John Haanen is one of the two leaders of this Oncode-PACT workstream. He is currently working on a form of immunotherapy at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, using living T cells – sometimes armed with a new recognition structure through genetic modification – against solid tumors.
Haanen: “These therapies are ingenious and promising. One of the main challenges we are facing to make cell therapy more effective in treating solid tumors, is finding a way to make all T cells that we return to the patients more effective and that they can survive longer in the harsh microenvironment of the tumor. That means that we have to teach T cells to create protective substances to arm themselves against all evasive and attack mechanisms employed by the tumor cells.”
As part of Oncode-PACT, the Netherlands Cancer Institute will primarily work on expanding its capacity, as well as on joining forces with other partners in terms of innovation and further development of cell and gene therapy strategies: more clean rooms to generate cell therapy products, and more capacity to develop therapeutic vaccines. Inge Jedema, head of Translational Cell Therapy: “Together with the center in Utrecht, we will be working as centers of expertise to help people from other centers or smaller companies that have great ideas but lack the highly specialized know-how. If we can join forces in the Netherlands in this way, our patients will be able to reap the benefits much sooner.”