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Let us cooperate on precise health technologies

International cooperation is key to fulfilling our vision of making cancer treatments more precise, and giving the patients new treatments more quickly.

This opinion piece is written by Ketil Widerberg, General Manager at Oslo Cancer Cluster. It was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Today’s Medicine, Dagens Medisin, 30 October 2018. 

The countries in Northern Europe have contributed to developing medical treatments that we today could not imagine living without. From the British discovery of antibiotics to the Danish development of a treatment for diabetes. Once again it is time for Northern European health innovation, this time in the field of health technology. What might the prime ministers from Northern Europe focus on when they meet in Oslo on 30 October to discuss health technology?

They might want to point out concrete and state-of-the-art initiatives from their respective countries. It could be Swedish biobanks, Finnish artificial intelligence, Danish health data, English genomics and Estonian health blockchain. These are exciting initiatives that make medicine more precise. This is particularly important when it comes to cancer because more precise treatments could save lives and limit the late effects resulting from imprecise treatment.

This opinion piece is written by Ketil Widerberg, General Manager at Oslo Cancer Cluster. It was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Today’s Medicine, Dagens Medisin, 30 October 2018.

At the same time, we see the contours of serious challenges arising with more precise medicine, such as each unit becoming more expensive. Smaller patient groups also mean that it is harder to find enough patients to understand the biological processes and the consequences of new medical treatments. As the prime ministers gather in Oslo to discuss health technology and plan the road ahead, it would not be amiss for them to look back in time and find inspiration from another technological development.

Precise through cooperation
In the 1990s, the search engine Yahoo helped us to quality-assure by categorising and being precise when we needed information on the internet. Yahoo thus contributed to the internet changing the world. However, the amount of data soon became enormous and complex, and a never-ending need for resources and experts arose. The traditional categorisation to ensure quality and structure the data became an impossible task.

This is very similar to what is happening in the health field today. We are constantly collecting more data and educating an increasing number of experts. With a few exceptions, every country is now collecting their data in their own registers and using a great deal of resources on assuring the quality of the data. The countries are rightfully proud of their initiatives. In Norway, we are proud of our biobanks and our health registers, such as the Cancer Registry of Norway. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves whether this national strategy really is the smartest way forward.

Let us go back to Yahoo. Towards the end of the 1990s, some engineers in California thought differently about the internet. How about using cooperation as a quality indicator? Instead of categorising, the links between the websites could ensure data quality. This is how Google was born, and we got precision, quality and insight into data that changed the world.

There are different challenges in the health field than on the internet. Data are more sensitive and the consequences for individuals can often be more dire. At the same time, health technology, in many ways, has reached the same point as the internet faced in the 1990s.  We do not have the quantity, the methods for analysis, or the quality to fully exploit the data to gather insight, or for treatment or innovation – yet.

From Yahoo to Google level
One way in which we could tackle the health technology challenges the data present us with is through international cooperation. It is about two things: to gather enough data, and to analyse the data to provide better and more precise treatment. The initiatives so far are promising, but they lack the potential to make the leap from Yahoo to Google.

The Northern European prime ministers can probably acknowledge this. The question is: what can they do? Should they encourage smart young engineers to analyse health data instead of developing the next app? Or should they change the way the hospitals buy technology?

A step in the right direction could be to look at what works best in the other countries. At the same time, we need to avoid new initiatives merely becoming a better horse-drawn carriage. Are there initiatives in existence that are scalable internationally so that we can bring health data up to the next level together? The answer is yes, but it requires visionary initiatives that have not been done anywhere else.

Common clinical studies
An area that the prime ministers will be able to highlight is a Northern European initiative for clinical studies. Together, the countries have a large number of patients, which gives researchers and doctors a better basis in their studies to understand more and provide better treatment. Such an initiative could also use health data from the national health services collected on a daily basis in several countries, known as real world data, instead of eventual clinical studies with patients over several years. This would be both quicker and much cheaper.

The prime ministers might also agree on cooperating on Northern European genetics. For 13 years, we collaborated on mapping our genes in the international  Human Genome Project. Now we need to get together to understand genes and treat the patients. With prioritised funding, genetics will soon be a part of the everyday clinical life in England. We can learn a lot from their experience.

Artificial intelligence
Lastly, the Northern European prime ministers may wish to collaborate on artificial intelligence in the health field. Today, cancer treatment, for instance, often only works on three out of ten patients. Artificial intelligence will change how we understand diseases such as cancer and how we treat the patients. The experiences from Finland of introducing artificial intelligence will help other countries to understand where the barriers are and where help might be needed first.

Oslo Cancer Cluster’s vision is to make cancer treatment more precise and provide new treatments more quickly to the patients. We see that international cooperation is key to obtaining this goal. As a result, we could also discover diseases more quickly and reduce the costs of the national health services. We hope the Northern European prime ministers will delve into these issues when they meet to discuss the health technologies of the future here with us.

By Ketil Widerberg, General Manager at Oslo Cancer Cluster.

Our International Work

Oslo Cancer Cluster aims to enhance the visibility of oncology innovation made in Norway by being a significant partner for international clusters, global biopharma companies and academic centres.

– Our goal is to support our members in their effort to attract international partners, investments and successful academia-industry collaborations, says International Advisor Jutta Heix.

Heix is responsible for the cluster’s international initiatives, cluster network and partnering activities.

– Back in 2008, Oslo Cancer Cluster was not visible internationally, and few people knew about oncology innovation in Norway. We began to seek out partners and actively approach international pharma companies and other clusters offering relevant synergies, says Heix.


Building relationships abroad

The relationships thrive on joint initiatives. These include invitations to Norway with tailored programmes, where potential collaboration partners can meet academic teams, start-ups and biotechs. Oslo Cancer Cluster has also joined forces with other hubs and clusters internationally.

One such collaboration is the International Cancer Cluster Showcase (ICCS) at the global biotechnology gathering BIO International Convention in the US. In 2017, it is arranged for the 6th time, with European and North American partners, including the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center, The Oncopole in Québec, The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Medicen in Paris and BioCat in Catalonia.

– This year the ICCS will showcase 24 innovative oncology companies from nine international innovation hubs and clusters. Three of our member companies in Oslo Cancer Cluster will use the opportunity to pitch their products and ideas to a global oncology audience, says Heix.

Jutta Heix is Oslo Cancer Cluster’s international advisor.


European and Nordic arenas
Meeting places are important in Europe too, with BIO-Europe, BIO-Europe Spring and Nordic Life Science Days at the top of the list. Oslo Cancer Cluster is the oncology partner at the Nordic Life Science Days. As a region, the Nordic countries are of international importance in the field of cancer research and innovation, especially in precision medicine, and Oslo Cancer Cluster participates in advancing Nordic collaboration.

Oslo Cancer Cluster also engages in more cancer specific European events. One example is the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy Meeting (CIMT), which is the largest European meeting in the field of cancer immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology.

– Many of our members are active in the field of immuno-oncology, so for a couple of years we have organized an event called CIMT Endeavour with German partners. The aim here is to discuss and promote translational research and innovation in immuno-oncology, says Heix.


Hot topics

Cancer immunotherapy has had a major impact on cancer treatment and global research and development in the cancer field. The concept took off with the approval of the first immune-checkpoint inhibitor, called Ipilimumab, in 2011. It offered a ground breaking new treatment for melanoma. In 2013, Science Magazine defined cancer immunotherapy as the breakthrough of the year. Since then, immunotherapy has been dominating the agenda of oncology meetings.

Other hot research and development topics are precision medicine and the increased digitization of the health sector. Oslo Cancer Cluster incorporates these topics in the international work, and aims to expand the services it provides for its members. The cluster recently got funding from Innovation Norway to do this, by adding an EU-advisor to the team.

– We want to increase our members’ involvement in EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon 2020. The new EU-advisor will help our members identify relevant funding schemes, find partners and prepare the applications, says Heix.

This initiative has already started to show some results. In the spring of 2017, Oslo Cancer Cluster member OncoImmunity AS won a prestigious Horizon 2020 SME Instrument grant, tailored for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). This grant targets innovative businesses with international ambitions — such as the bioinformatics company OncoImmunity.

 

New meeting places
– Member needs are important for us, as it is for clusters in general. Our network is for the benefit of our members. A good way of leveraging the network, is by creating relevant initiatives and new meeting places – to keep things moving forward, says Heix.

Oslo Cancer Cluster has new international initiatives coming up. One is in immuno-oncology, bringing Norwegian biotechs to the well-established research communities on the US East coast. The biotechs will get training and support, and will meet academic medical centres and biopharma companies in Boston and other cities. This initiative is supported by Innovation Norway’s Global Growth programme.

Another new initiative takes on academic innovation. More good ideas from academia should make it into patents, start-ups and investment opportunities for industry partners.

– Stanford University has a programme called SPARK. We are working with Norwegian partners, including The University of Oslo Life Science and The Norwegian Inflammation Network (NORIN), on implementing a Norwegian SPARK-programme. This will be part of the global SPARK-network, and we are already building a European node together with Berlin and Finland, Jutta Heix says.

ICCS 2014: Cutting-edge oncology innovations

On June 22nd, one day prior to the BIO International Convention in San Diego, the International Cancer Cluster Showcase 2014 kicks off. The showcase is an opportunity to head-start the partnering at BIO 2014 and get the latest on what is going on in the cancer clusters of Oslo, Massachusetts, Quebec, Chicago, Toulouse, and the UK Golden Triangle.

For the 3rd time Oslo Cancer Cluster will present cutting edge innovations together with its international partners from North America and Europe. Oslo Cancer Cluster members selected to present at this year’s International Cancer Cluster Showcase (ICCS) are BerGenBio, PCI Biotech and Nextera.


ICCS – A winning concept

Previous ICCS-events have attracted 150 – 200 dedicated international oncology professionals. Positive feedback has encouraged Oslo Cancer Cluster and its international partners to continue with this meeting format. BerGenBio’s CEO Richard Godfrey says:

“The ICCS was a great start to BIO 2013, it was interesting to see the other cancer companies present and we made a few excellent contacts that otherwise we may not have connected with. I will certainly be present at ICCS 2014.”

This year two new partners, namely Cancer Campus from Villejuif and Stockholm-Uppsala Life Sciences are joining the ICCS and contribute to leverage the portfolio of oncology partnering opportunities. The International Cancer Cluster Showcase 2014 will be hosted at the San Diego Convention Centre, same site as the BIO 2014 will be hosted.

For information on presenting companies and registration, please see the ICCS conference website: www.internationalcancercluster.org.

 

BIO International Convention 23-26 June, 2014
Oslo Cancer Cluster will also be represented at the world’s largest biotech conference, BIO International Convention. This year the event is taking place on 23-26 June in San Diego, California at the San Diego Convention Center.

Oslo Cancer Cluster will share a centrally located booth with the other Nordic regions; Medicon Valley Alliance, Biopeople, Invest in Skåne and Copenhagen Capacity. All Oslo Cancer Cluster members may display material at the booth which will function as a central meeting place for the members, coordinated by the Oslo Cancer Cluster team.

Building strong international networks to stimulate collaboration, partnerships and thereby innovation for our members is a key strategic goal for Oslo Cancer Cluster.

More information about BIO 2014 is found at convention.bio.org.

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