How did Oncode Institute mature in the last five years? What was the original idea, and how did it work out in the view of a founder and someone who joined Oncode Institute in 2019? Founding Director Hans Bos, and junior Oncode Investigator Miao-Ping Chien reflect on the growth of the institute.
Oncode Investigator, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics, Erasmus MC.
Oncode Institute Founding Director, Professor Emeritus in Molecular Cancer Research, UMC Utrecht.
A true community
What was your motivation to start or join Oncode Institute?
Hans: I believe in the importance of consortia, where scientists collaborate and share knowledge and technology. In molecular cancer research, we have had such consortia for more than 20 years. For me, the Oncode initiative was a rational next step. We had a strong community with excellent scientific output but we didn't know how to make the most of it and push these findings forward. Generally, the valorization efforts could be strengthened at universities. And that’s the basis for Oncode Institute: for valorization, we have to join forces.
Miao: For me, that focus on valorization was one of the main reasons to join Oncode. The dedication of our business developers makes a huge difference. They were able to support our group by making viable valorization strategies, charting possibilities to channel our technologies to the community or the market, and even thinking about clinical applications. The other important reason is the non-restricted funding Oncode provides. We can use those funds for high-risk-high-gain projects, which brings immense creative value. We can also use them to increase the technology readiness level of the developed methods or technologies, or to create a larger pool of validation data to test or validate our discoveries.
Why is the combination of the three Oncode pillars (excellent science, collaboration, and valorization) so important for cancer research?
Miao: I think these pillars are intertwined. Every Oncode Investigator is a great scientist or pioneer in their field. Thanks to non-restricted funding, they can create even greater science and technology and make those immediately accessible to the Oncode community. That leads to even more new discoveries and knowledge. It’s like a big positive feedback loop.
Hans: If you look at this from a historical perspective, you can see why Oncode is so important. In the past, a single research group had to do everything by themselves. Nowadays, each group needs so many technologies, making it almost impossible to manage. That makes collaboration important. Also, historically, being a scientist wasn’t about bringing technologies to the market. That has changed. Society almost expects scientists to report back.
"We can use those funds for high-risk-high-gain projects, which brings immense creative value."
What were your expectations of Oncode Institute? Were those expectations realized? And what was a surprising result?
Miao: I expected a lot of opportunities from the start, and they were all realized or even surpassed. I have already created lots of new collaborations after joining Oncode and some of our developed technologies have been valorized with the help we received from Oncode. The immense help of the valorization team surpassed what I initially expected. Because of them, the technology readiness level of our inventions has drastically increased, and we can make them available to the community in a facility.
Hans: In the Netherlands, we have a culture of collaboration and consortia. That made me confident that Oncode would become a success. However, I was curious how the valorization pillar would develop. I’m impressed by its achievements, and the fact that valorization is embraced by most scientists. Also, at the start, we got comments on the fact that we were starting this institute as a bunch of old men. But for me, it was clear from day one that Oncode should be run by the next generation. I now see these new young people joining Oncode, familiarizing themselves with the culture, bringing enthusiasm to the table, sharing data, and stepping outside of their labs. That’s an aspect I like.
What is your biggest learning from the first years of Oncode Institute?
Miao: We need to understand that collaboration and valorization are key drivers of our research, and embrace them. Together, we can discover new targets or technologies much faster and more efficiently. Creating viable valorization strategies will lead to wider application of our inventions and discoveries. This includes the identification of target users or researchers, translation to clinical applications or even creating a startup.
Hans: Setting up this institute involved the cooperation of ministries, universities, medical centers, and institutes. Combining all these stakeholders has been an absolute tour de force, and it still is. All the back-office work from the Oncode management still is important and – important to add – mostly done by scientists. I admire that. We should realize how much work they do and how important it is. It’s the spirit and culture of the young people that also make Oncode the success story it is.
What do you think is the biggest achievement Oncode has made so far?
Miao: Oncode has helped the creation of several startups and clinical trials. All these owe a big thank you to the huge Oncode support team and valorization advisors behind the scenes. Another big achievement is the initiation of Oncode-PACT, which aims to create new effective drugs in a faster and cost-effective way. Based on this, we’re one step ahead of other organizations.
Hans: Oncode-PACT is a great initiative, strengthening Oncode in the process. There is a lot of scientific power behind it. I should add that when we started Oncode, I was close to retirement. To use my experience with other consortia to help set up this institute felt like a kind of legacy. I’m happy that it’s still going as we imagined it would, and that our stakeholders still have trust in us. We created a true community.
Let’s zoom out a bit. How do you think Oncode Institute is perceived internationally?
Hans: I recall discussing affiliations when we started. Should we mention Oncode or our respective institutes? We couldn’t figure it out. Then, an international review panel told me that they had never seen so much collaboration between cancer researchers from different institutes than in the Netherlands. Besides, most Oncode scientists have an international reputation. What counts is that they are all doing stellar research and are working in The Netherlands.
Miao: I may be a little biased as a member of the institute, but I do see that Oncode becomes more and more well-known. When I give talks or attend conferences abroad, more and more people are aware of our institute and my impression is that it is considered prestigious to be part of it.
Hans: That’s good news! I don’t work abroad anymore, but it seems we’re on the right track. Oncode is a unique institute, so there isn’t a precedent to follow. We should be proud of the initiative as it has proven to work.
What is your expectation for Oncode’s next phase?
Miao: I have seen a lot happening in the past five years. That seems like a long time, but it is relatively short in terms of getting outcomes of clinical trials and valorization activities. In the next phase, I expect lots of new trials, results, discoveries, technologies, immunotherapies, and startups to be generated. It’s exciting to learn what the future will bring.
Hans: As for me, I’m retired so I don’t have concrete expectations anymore. I do expect the institute to extend and bring in more young promising scientists. I hope Oncode keeps reinventing itself. The current management board is strong and realizes they need to keep fresh initiatives like these flowing. Collaborations like Oncode-PACT show that they are on the right track.
Credits: interview by Koen Scheerders; photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie