Pharmacogenetics the Dutch way

Dr. Ron van Schaik (pictured) is Professor of Pharmacogenetics at Erasmus University and President of the European Society for Pharmacogenetics and Personalised Therapy (ESPT). PMF Editor Mark Glover speaks to the Dutchman about his early academic years, his role as ESPT President and why he thinks everyone should have their own DNA passport in five years’ time.

Having received a PHD in chemistry from Utrecht University in 1992, the Dutchman then spent three months at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in New York training in molecular biology, working alongside renowned geneticist James Watson. His post-doctorate work at the Erasmus university and the Academic Hospital Rotterdam covered translational research with molecular biological testing. It’s this clinical application approach that drives him forward, which he sees, ultimately, as a way of helping those who are sick. “The research part is nice but I wanted to do translational research to see what we can apply to patients, to see how we can help them,” he affirms.

Leading the way

Holland, the professor’s homeland has swiftly positioned itself as a country leading the way in pharmacogenetics. its relatively small population makes it ideal for identifying personal data correlations; large enough in scale to measure but not too large that it becomes impractical to collaborate.

One key component of this progression is the establishment of the Dutch Pharmacogenetics Working Group (DPWG). Founded by the Royal Dutch Pharmacist’s Association in 2005, the DPWG has enabled the development of pharmacogenetics-based therapeutic dose recommendations, assisting drug prescribers by integrating these recommendations into computerised systems for prescriptions. He summarises its impact. “This is one of the major drivers pushing pharmacogenetics further in this country. It means that these recommendations are immediately available nationwide. And what are the other major drivers? van Schaik references the advancement of technology as an essential factor but he is quick to cite education and raised awareness of the DPWG as just as integral. “You need to have the knowledge that people can use it (dose recommendations); that it’s not expensive like a clinical genetic test and that it is actionable and you can do something with it. This is very important. “There are still clinicians who question if the evidence is there and if it is cost-effective, but to be able to show that will take a very large study and there is not really funding for that.”

European collaboration

In 2005, van Schaik was elected president of the ESPT. The society has been instrumental in instigating pharmacogenetic collaboration across Europe offering input to laboratories who went to set-up programmes but are not sure where to start with the Dutch template being used to showcase what can be achieved. “We can illustrate what we have done here and how things can move on. We are regarded by countries as an example of how it can work and we can assist them in creating a model that suits them better,” he says.

I ask the Professor to horizon-scan, to predict what the pharmacogenetic landscape will look like in twenty years? However, he is keen to talk about advancements in five years, excited by the prospect of people having their own DNA passport in that time, which he feels is a real possibility. “We have seen in the last two years that people who have a DNA test also want a complete profile. I want people to have their own DNA passport,” he says enthused. “I am not sceptical about this. We are moving in the right direction.”

Is collaboration a key part of getting there? “Collaboration is important, it should not be competitive. We exchange ideas and we help each other out. That’s how we can make a difference.”

Dr. Ron van Schaik will be speaking at the Benelux Precision Medicine Forum in June 2018. You can register for the event here, where you can still take advantage of a ‘early-bird’ discount.