The inaugural Benelux Precision Medicine Forum took place in Utrecht. Its programme of international speakers meant its message of collaboration stretched beyond the boundaries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Located in the heart of Holland, the medieval city of Utrecht plays an important role in the country’s transport network. Its road and rail network stretch out to all corners of the Netherlands and in turn, to all corners of Benelux.

It seemed appropriate then that Utrecht was the location for the inaugural Benelux Precision Medicine Forum which took place from 12 to 13 June. The forum brought together stakeholders from all international corners of the precision medicine sector over two days of insightful presentations and lively roundtable discussions.

Technology plays a key part in the development of precision medicine, yet it is an area that bio-pharma companies can struggle to incorporate into their work given the complexities of the area. However, there are many advantages to bringing the two sectors together. But how can this become a reality?

This is the aim of the PERMIDES project, a European Commission backed initiative that provides a foundation for pharma companies to connect with technology firms to work together on precision medicine research, and in the spirit of collaboration the PERMIDES conference entitled Empowering Personalised Medicine through Digital Solutions was integrated into the opening morning of the Benelux Precision Medicine Forum.

Introduced by Tamara Hoglder, a PERMIDES co-ordinator from CyberForum and Chaired by Simon Schnaiter from Oncotyrol, the conference showcased a selection of these partnerships including a project on the prioritisation and pathway analysis of mutations in congenital heart disease that brought together companies in Greece and Spain, a coupling made possible by the funding and support of the project and was just one example of such international collaboration.

Following the PERMIDES conference and lunch, delegates gathered for the start of the Benelux Precision Medicine Forum. Chairing the event, Dr Ron van Schaick from the Erasmus University Medical Centre, welcomed delegates and introduced the first of two sessions that focussed on economic value of the sector.

Professor Maarten Ijzerman from the University of Twente discussed the delivery of value-based personalised cancer care in liquid biopsies and continuing the theme, Paula Lorgelly from the UK Office of Health Economics discussed the value of precision medicine and how it can be paid for.

Ian Walker from Roche Foundation Medicine used his time to focus on patient centred treatment and Edwin Cuppen from the Hartwig foundation discussed national scale tumour whole genome sequencing for personalised cancer treatment in the Netherlands. Concluding the session, Gerrit A. Meijer, MD, PhD from the Netherlands Cancer Institute moved into the subject of innovation, specifically in biomarker research.

The three speakers then took questions from the audience which saw delegates of patient advocate groups asking for more urgency in making these ideas a reality. “We have all these wonderful things,” said one advocate member, “but where do we direct the action to for patients?” Edwin Cuppen suggested the outlook was far from ideal. “There is still a long way to go. We’re going fast in the Netherlands but it is not fast enough,” he said. From a company point of view, Ian Walker from Roche Foundation Medicine said: “We should agree what we need to measure and go ahead and measure it.” Cuppen then said that the real challenge is the lack of biomarkers.

Following coffee, Catherine Larue, CEO at the Luxembourg Institute of Health, picked up on the biomarker theme explaining the use of validation platforms and how they can maximise efficiency. Yiu-Lian Fong from Johnson and Johnson Innovation focused on the effect of big-date on precision medicine and diagnostics and discussed the opportunities Artificial Intelligence can bring to the sector as well as some of the challenges it poses. The final session of the day saw Bregje van Oorschot, Brand Manager of Oncology at AstraZeneca present on diagnostics and the way it can unlock some of the mysteries of precision medicine.

Jean-Luc Sanne, Senior Policy Officer, Unit for the Innovative and Personalised Medicine Unit, Health Research Directorate in DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission began day two by giving an overview of personalised medicine in Europe, specifically in clinical translational sciences.

There then followed a fascinating presentation by Anthony Barron, who along with a team at Charles River Associates, carried out an analysis on behalf of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and the European Biopharmaceutical Enterprises to quantify the benefits of personalised medicines to patients, society and healthcare systems. Explaining the evidence-based results, Barron put forward some of the barriers and enablers that can enhance the development of precision medicine in Europe.


Next up, the excellent Professor Alain van Gool from Radboud University Medical Centre acknowledged that advancements in next generation sequencing and mass spectrometry had helped hugely with insights into molecular components of human biology and their interactions, however he said that the complexity of human physiology means that various ‘omics analysis platforms should be utilised.

Professor Timothy Radstake from UMC Utrecht used his time to argue that a systems medicine approach can be used to understand, re-classify and treat chronic inflammatory diseases in a personalised way and Dr. Anke-Hilse Maitland-van der Zee then outlined the use of precision medicine in treating respiratory disease. Finally before lunch, Michelle Garred, Director of Marketing at Bluebee explained how important the use of data is in precision medicine research and development.

Following lunch, a series of lively roundtables took place after which conference Chairman Dr. Ron Van Schaik turned presenter, treating delegates to an entertaining forty minutes on DNA as a blueprint for personal drug therapy.

Peter Kapitein, a patient advocate from Inspire2Live then presented passionately on behalf of patients and the role they can play in advancing cancer research. Kapitein, who has had his own battles with cancer, emotionally urged researchers and clinicians to work with patients to break down barriers that exist in the sector.

Closing the conference, Dr. E.J.F. Houwink, an Assistant Professor at LUMC and part-time family physician in Maastricht, spoke from the view of the General Practitioner and how precision medicine is incorporated into her daily practice, something that perhaps gets overlooked by the wider medical community.

Leaving the conference, delegates felt a sense of achievement; that conversations over the two days could lead to progress. Speaker Paula Lorgelly said the event enabled key figures from the sector to come together and develop ideas. “I think it’s important to bring people together because it’s not until you’re actually face-to-face that you get the chance to question somebody about their position and ask them about what we should be doing so it feels like we’re actually moving somewhere,” she said.

Assessing the event, Precision Medicine Forum Director Steve Coldicott: “People ask me how I think the forum has gone – and my response is always the same – it doesn’t really matter what I think; it’s all about the attendees and whether they feel it has been of benefit. Feedback is everything to us, and comments suggest that our first event for the Benelux region has been a resounding success. Indeed, we are already in discussions about how we can build on this foundation and bring together a more diverse group with new, fresh topics and an even better forum in 2019.

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