Oncode aims to drive innovation through collaboration, fostering a culture of openness and sharing in which researchers can engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations, with different scientific groups, clinicians, and other public and private research organizations. To achieve this objective, Oncode has built collaboration into every aspect of its operations. Firstly, through Oncode’s interconnected 12 partner institutes, providing Oncode researchers with a nationwide network of facilities scientific and clinical experts, together with their research, (patient) data and samples. Secondly, by promoting collaborative research through targeted funding programmes that require joint applications by multiple OIs or applications together with a clinician. Thirdly, by providing its community with multiple platforms for interaction, ranging from large, institute-wide annual meetings and conferences to small-scale focused technical masterclasses and clinical workshops. Lastly, by proactively reaching out to industry to identify opportunities for collaboration via its Industry Engagement (IE) programme. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented some of these activities in 2021, Oncode continued to organize meetings both online, face to face, and hybrid to ensure interactions could continue.
(ex)patient - researcher couples
2 out of 3
Oncode Accelerator Projects funded through external sources
meetings attended with 1250 people in 2021
active collaborations with industry
followers on LinkedIn
Meeting people during the COVID-19 pandemic
Social interactions play a vital role within Oncode’s scientific community, allowing constructive discussion, the exchange of new ideas and opinions, the forging of new collaborations, and the strengthening of existing relationships.
Patients and researchers are inherently linked but rarely meet. In different ways, both patients and researchers have their lives deeply affected by cancer. Getting researchers and patients together is a chance to access first-hand knowledge and improve research through novel ideas, perspectives, and discussions.
Public Private Partnerships
Oncode aims to enable the efficient translation of Oncode research findings into better treatments and diagnostics for cancer patients. To do so, it promotes interdisciplinary collaboration with industrial partners, continuously investing in building long-lasting relationships and identifying opportunities for collaboration with industry.
Oncode Accelerator Projects
Since its start, Oncode has invested in building an interactive research community in the strong belief that the establishment of interactions between scientists across different disciplines and expertise can act as the driving force for new research questions and approaches.
Science in person
Collaboration in person
Meeting people during the COVID-19 pandemic
Community building 101: Social interactions play a vital role within Oncode’s scientific community, allowing constructive discussion, the exchange of new ideas and opinions, the forging of new collaborations, and the strengthening of existing relationships. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting social distancing regulations had a major impact on face-to-face interactions within the Oncode community. Based on the adaptations Oncode put in place in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, Oncode was able to continue organizing a wide variety of meetings throughout the year. Depending on the restrictions in place at certain times, Oncode shifted easily from fully online to hybrid or face to face meetings. This enabled the community to share research, learn, and engage with its network to bring about new interactions between researchers, clinicians, patients, and industry representatives in new ways.
During 2021, Oncode organized 8 meetings attracting a total of 1250 participants. In addition to Oncode’s standard meetings such as its clinical workshops, annual conferences, OI meetings, and technical masterclasses, a new type of meeting was added to Oncode’s repertoire in 2021 - namely, the Postdoc Retreat. This two-day event set in the forests near Lunteren brought together 67 postdoctoral researchers from Oncode partner institutes across the Netherlands. The programme included scientific sessions covering a wide variety of topics, two keynote lectures, workshops on Intellectual Property, entrepreneurship, and career development, and most importantly, lots of breaks for informal talks and networking.
Training programme: Oncode believes in the importance of educating and training future generations of researchers. As in previous years, Oncode successfully offered its community a wide range of face-to-face workshops, masterclasses, and mentoring sessions in 2021. Working within the constraints of COVID-related social distancing regulations and lockdowns, Oncode hosted three masterclasses and one workshop in collaboration with OIs, and the I&T programme. In these masterclasses/workshops, experts (Oncode researchers and invited speakers) discussed the latest scientific discoveries and technical developments in their field. In addition, the expertise, technical possibilities, and/or opportunities for hands-on support available to research projects via Oncode’s facilities were showcased. Topics such as “Single-cell genomics/epigenomics” and “Technologies and model systems used in genome (in)stability research” were covered. In total, Oncode organized 5 masterclasses. The workshops and masterclasses were highly appreciated as witnessed by some of the quotes provided by participants:
“To get a general idea of the state of the art and applications of these single-cell technologies, and who to contact in case we need help in experiments.”
“It was a great overview of which technologies are used and developed in the Oncode network. Furthermore, it was a great opportunity to talk to the speakers.”
“Nice to see very different techniques discussed by experts in the field.”
Patient Engagement 101: Patients and researchers are inherently linked but rarely meet. In different ways, both patients and researchers have their lives deeply affected by cancer. Getting researchers and patients together is a chance to access first-hand knowledge and improve research through novel ideas, perspectives, and discussions.
Oncode ensures that the patient perspective is well represented within the institute's actions, ranging from patient representation in our chief advisory boards and inclusion of the patient perspective in our communications, to well-defined support structures that enable researchers and [ex-]patients to connect and interact.
Patient Perspective programme: In 2019, Oncode set about establishing a pilot study in which (ex)cancer patients and researchers could regularly meet to discuss their experiences. The pilot study was initiated in NKI and LUMC in early 2020, initially with 5 research groups participating. As a result of persistent promotion during Oncode meetings and news items, the programme steadily gained more and more traction. In 2021, 3 more research groups joined the programme and a total of 11 (ex)patients now informally interact with members of 6 Oncode research groups on a regular basis, while 2 groups are searching for suitable childhood cancer survivors as patient partners.
Sadly, 2021 was also marked by the death due to lung cancer of Boelien Geerts, one of the first patient representatives in Oncode’s Patient Engagement Programme. Oncode is immensely grateful to Boelien for all her efforts. Her dedication, energy, and positive attitude have inspired many within Oncode and she will remain in our hearts and minds forever.
Karin de Visser, (NKI): "Questions from patients can be very different to those from fellow researchers, which may provide new insights into your research.”
Inge Reus, (patient partner): "I am looking forward to another session. How wonderful to still be able to learn so much [from patients], because the disease cancer also brings many positive experiences, and I am grateful for that.”
Marten Hornsveld, (researcher LUMC): “The fact that pancreatic cancer leads to a lot of stomach pain made me decide to look into co-culturing cells of the nervous system in my pancreatic cancer models.”
Jacco van Rheenen, (NKI): “The van Rheenen lab is a multidisciplinary team of biologists, geneticists, biophysicists, and medical doctors. We collaborate with multiple international leaders in a wide variety of fields. In other words, we get input on our research from different perspectives. However, the only perspective that we missed was from patients. By involving patients in our research, we will fill this gap.”
Patient engagement crossing borders: 2021 was marked by Oncode’s Patient Engagement programme, which reached out to other (inter-)national institutes and initiatives to collaborate on the topic of patient engagement. Through these outreach activities, Oncode aims to learn from and/or inspire other initiatives that already have experience of patient engagement or have the ambition to engage with patients. The programme has now built ties with multiple initiatives namely:
- In collaboration with University Utrecht, Oncode set up an interactive lecture on patient participation for the ‘Oog voor impact’ course delivered to more than 100 bachelor students in the biomedical sciences. The lecture featured a team of 2 patient partners and 3 Oncode researchers, who shared their experiences within the Oncode Patient Perspective programme.
- A group of clinical and psycho-social researchers working in oncology at Lausanne University are currently building a platform to foster public, patient, and caregiver involvement in cancer research. Eager to learn, they reached out to hear Oncode's experiences on building a patient engagement programme.
- In 2021, Oncode was instrumental in setting up a pan-European research initiative. In late 2021, the European Commission (EC) launched a one-year Coordination and Supportive Action called Understanding Cancer (UNCAN).eu with the goal to generate a blueprint for the UNCAN.eu virtual institute. The blueprint will be organized as a research roadmap, focused on a limited number of challenges within cancer research, prevention, and treatment that urgently need to be addressed. Oncode expects to become actively engaged in the setting up of multiple scientific work packages. Importantly, Oncode's Patient Engagement programme will participate in a work package titled ‘Patients and European Citizens in Cancer Research’. This work package aims to engage and empower patients and European citizens in UNCAN projects and ensure that UNCAN takes patients' unmet needs and priorities into consideration in each work package. If funding is awarded, the lessons learned in Oncode’s unique patient engagement programme could potentially be rolled out on a much larger scale.
Student University Utrecht: “I have learned today that you have to involve patients in every step of cancer research. It is very rewarding for both patients and researchers in all types of research, not only in for example, clinical trials.”
Public Private Partnerships
Public Private Partnerships 101: Oncode aims to enable the efficient translation of Oncode research findings into better treatments and diagnostics for cancer patients. To do so, it promotes interdisciplinary collaboration with industrial partners, continuously investing in building long-lasting relationships and identifying opportunities for collaboration with industry. Through the day-to-day actions of Oncode’s valorization team and its proactive Industry Engagement programme, Oncode has built an extensive (inter)national network of industry partners to facilitate public private collaborations. This network can be readily accessed by Oncode business developers when opportunities for collaboration arise. Oncode’s expertise in arranging legal and financial frameworks for Public Private Partnerships (PPP) helps to accelerate the set-up and execution of these collaborations.
Oncode is currently in contact with 93% of the oncology-related SMEs in The Netherlands. The large majority of OIs are now collaborating with or in discussion with industry. Moreover, the total contract value with industry has increased more than 14 times since the initiation of Oncode, from €1.3M in 2018 to €18.7M in 2021. Furthermore, in 2021 Oncode business developers brokered 249 new agreements with industry ranging from confidentiality disclosure agreements (CDAs) and collaborative research agreements to license agreements.
Alexander van Oudenaarden (Hubrecht Institute): “Oncode facilitates collaborations and contact with companies. In the last year we were contacted by several companies and Oncode really helps streamlining these interactions by making sure all paperwork is in order and agreements are clear.”
Leila Akkari (NKI): “In search for companies interested in targeting myeloid cells in challenging cancers like glioblastamo, Oncode put me in touch with a relatively young but very dynamic company called Iteos, which is run by scientists still very close to the bench, like us. Without my business developer Yuva Oz identifying this company and knowing it would fit my expectations and needs, I would not have reached out to them.”
A PPP in the spotlight: "I have been intrigued by how one single factor could elicit so many different biological effects ever since I was a master’s student", says OI Peter ten Dijke (LUMC). He means the TGF-β growth factor, to which he eventually devoted his entire career. It was by chance that during a scientific conference, Peter came across antibody of interest of a well-established biopharma company. The antibody targets a highly conserved bone morphogenetic protein antagonist and a member of the Transforming Growth Factor-β superfamily, a pathway which Peter is all too familiar with. Following a fruitful discussion, Peter saw the potential for a collaboration and informed the Oncode valorization team. Oncode business developer Yuva Oz set-up a meeting between the company’s scientists, Peter ten Dijke’s team, and Oncode to discuss whether it might be of interest to investigate if inhibition of the target of interest with the company’s antibody might be synergistic with immunotherapy. A public-private partnership was in the making.
Yuva Oz instantly recognized that the in-vivo mouse work in the project could benefit from the expertise of Jos Jonkers’ lab at NKI. As it turned out, the addition of postdoc Julie Houthuijzen from the Jonkers lab turned out to be the missing link for the project. The team quickly changed gear, with Peter and Julie writing the project plan and the Oncode BD team setting up a collaborative research proposal and agreement. Oncode led the negotiations for the project plan and the agreement between both institutes and secured an 18-month, ~€360K project with exciting scientific elements spanning NKI and LUMC.
A crisis calls for collaboration across the field: The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic placed unprecedented pressure on diagnostic systems worldwide. At the start of the pandemic, the Netherlands was completely unprepared to carry out the massive testing needed to monitor and control the spread of the virus. OIs Marvin Tanenbaum and Wouter de Laat (both from the Hubrecht Institute) wanted to contribute their scientific knowledge and expertise to combat the impact of the virus and brought together a large group of researchers at the Hubrecht Institute. In early 2020, they came up with a new, fast, and cost-effective method for diagnosing COVID-19. The validation and large-scale implementation of this new method called for a collaborative initiative involving academia, industry, and government. Scientists from the biotech company Genmab and a regional COVID-19 center - the Laboratory for Pathology and Medical Microbiology (PAMM) - were quickly contacted, resulting in the birth of the ‘Systematic Testing using Robotics and Innovation during Pandemics’ (STRIP) consortium. The consortium developed and implemented a test robot (lovingly called ‘the Beast’) with the capacity to make PCR testing possible on a much larger and more cost-effective scale. Oncode quickly recognized the potential and supported this extraordinary public-private partnership by prefinancing the purchase of the required robotics platform.
In January 2021, the Dutch Minister of Health Hugo de Jonge officially launched the newly installed STRIP-1 test robot at the PAMM laboratories. Currently, the Dutch government has installed five additional STRIP robots to use during the current pandemic, which could also be deployed during future pandemics. In a recent Nature Biotechnology paper, the test protocol as well as the history of this extraordinary consortium was published.
Hugo de Jonge (Dutch Minister of Health): “The STRIP can be an important additional link in large-scale testing, which is necessary in a pandemic. It is wonderful that companies and institutes in The Netherlands have managed to do this, and the government has been happy to cooperate.”
Rallying the sector: Oncode-PACT: Through the ‘National Growth Fund’, the Dutch government will invest up to €20 billion in projects within the areas of either 1) knowledge development, or 2) research, development, and innovation, to create structural and sustainable economic growth. When the ministry of Economic Affairs announced the second call for projects in early 2021, Oncode was quick to respond and rally the sector to propose a unique project called Oncode-PACT (Preclinical Accelerator for Cancer Treatments), which was submitted in November 2021.
The goal of Oncode-PACT is to bring together the best academic researchers and biotech companies and build a state-of-the-art drug development infrastructure that will not only be easily accessible but also able to innovate the drug development process itself. Oncode-PACT will build early validation and de-risking into the drug development pipeline, ultimately increasing the chances of bringing new therapies to patients.
The project will combine all the expertise needed for cancer drug development into one accessible pipeline and innovate the drug development process via more relevant research models and detailed clinical data from well-defined patient populations. Based on the existing infrastructure that Oncode Institute and the PACT-partners have built up, Oncode-PACT aims to place the Netherlands at the heart of international efforts in oncological drug development. The effect this will have on Dutch biotech and pharmaceutical companies is expected to generate lasting economic impact. The platform will be accessible to any academic institution or company in the Netherlands.
More than forty leading parties from the oncology ecosystem have already joined the consortium to implement Oncode-PACT, including SMEs, large companies, universities, UMCs, research institutes, and social partners. Oncode is proud of the proposal and is confident it will be funded. Oncode-PACT and its many partners will create positive long-term social and economic impact in the Netherlands. By the end of April 2022, it will be clear if the proposal will be approved for funding.
Oncode Accelerator Projects
Since its start, Oncode has invested in building an interactive research community in the strong belief that the establishment of interactions between scientists across different disciplines and expertise can act as the driving force for new research questions and approaches. In late 2020, Oncode launched a new class of projects called Oncode Accelerator Projects (OAPs). Through OAPs, Oncode seeks to increase synergy not only by bringing OIs together in a single project, but also by uniting OIs with non-Oncode researchers, clinicians, and industry to form multi-disciplinary teams that can address unmet medical needs or scientific challenges identified by the Oncode community through innovative high risk, high reward approaches.
Oncode launched a call for OAP suggestions and 23 project ideas were submitted by different teams of OIs. These were subsequently presented and discussed with fellow OIs in multiple sessions. Of the submitted projects, five were invited to submit a full project proposal for review by Oncode’s International Advisory Board. Three projects were eventually chosen for inclusion in Oncode's phase 2 strategy. Because Oncode is currently unable to fund these OAPs through its phase 2 core funding, the projects will be required to attract alternative sources of funding. To date, two projects have already attracted funding from external partners and Oncode anticipates that funding from alternatives sources to support the third OAP in phase 2 will be secured. For the two funded OAPs:
- A team of 8 research groups from 5 partner institutes and an industry partner will be led by OI Bas van Steensel (NKI), who has attracted €4.4M of private funding for a project entitled: Finding regulatory mutations in the non-coding cancer genome (see interview with Bas van Steensel).
- A team of 11 research groups from 6 partner institutes led by OI Sjoerd van der Burg (LUMC) has attracted €3.4M from KWF for a project entitled: Curing tumours difficult to treat with immunotherapy by mobilizing innate leukocytes. Participating research groups will collectively add €1.6M to the KWF contribution.
The OAPs will form a new central element in Oncode’s phase 2 strategy, and it is expected that new calls for project ideas will be initiated in future as the phase 2 budget becomes clearer.