BETTER TREATMENT FOR PANCREATIC CANCER PATIENTS THANKS TO UNIQUE DNA ANALYSIS
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‘The standard treatment is now more than forty percent ineffective’
Medical science and industry are joining forces to improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer patients. Omnigen and Prof. Dr. Casper van Eijck have developed a unique DNA sequencing method, which can be used to predict whether the tough standard FOLFIRINOX treatment will work. That’s currently certainly by no means always the case. ‘And even if FOLFIRINOX does work, the majority of people end up being hospitalised because of the severe side effects.’
Prof. Dr. Casper van Eijck isn’t just world famous in Rotterdam, but certainly also far beyond. The pancreatobiliary surgeon and professor at the Erasmus MC – also a former Feyenoord and Sparta club doctor – is an authority in the field of pancreatic cancer. His Support Casper foundation is committed to (raising money for) research into this type of cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive type of cancer, which is generally detected (too) late and is the second deadliest cancer in the Netherlands. Only six percent of everyone who is diagnosed is still alive five years later.
ALWAYS LOOKING FOR INNOVATIONS
Van Eijck is constantly looking for innovations, as part of his mission to improve the survival rate, lifespan and quality of life for patients suffering from pancreatic cancer. He certainly doesn’t shy away from seeking collaborations with the business community when doing so, which is actually quite unusual in the medical world. He’s been working with Omnigen for several years now, which was founded by Berry Kriesels in 2012. Omnigen consists of a team of ambitious scientists, all with a background in bioinformatics and genetics. They examine medical, genetic and biological issues from many different fields, using the very latest scientific and technological insights.
STANDARD TREATMENT NOT EFFECTIVE
Omnigen developed a method based on an algorithm which can predict whether treatment with FOLFIRINOX will work in a patient with more than 90 percent accuracy. ‘FOLFIRINOX is the standard course of chemotherapy prescribed for people with metastatic pancreatic cancer,’ according to Van Eijck. ‘That’s because pancreatic cancer is very difficult to treat with other types of chemotherapy. To put it bluntly: the patient is given the treatment and then we’ll simply have to see whether it works or not. The major problem we face is that the treatment isn’t effective for forty to fifty percent of people. And that while FOLFIRINOX is an extremely tough treatment. And even if it does work, the majority of patients end up being hospitalised because of the severe side effects.’
DECISIONS BASED ON HALF-TRUTHS AND MISINFORMATION
This is difficult for patients and for doctors, explains Van Eijck. ‘Shared decision making is on the rise. But doctors naturally have to be able to provide their patients with the right information. So what we’re currently actually saying: we can treat you with FOLFIRINOX, but we have no idea whether it will work. That’s incredibly difficult for a patient to hear. So you’re supposed to go through absolute hell, with quite a significant chance that the treatment won’t even work? You try making that decision. These are also very difficult conversations for doctors. Berry’s possible solution sounded promising. I thought it was worth a try.’
Omnigen developed a method based on DNA sequencing. ‘This is actually really just mapping out DNA if you completely flatten that out. Anyone who is only remotely skilled in this area can do that. But we take an inventive look at that data,’ Kriesels says, who initially approached Van Eijck in 2015 because he wanted to offer DNA diagnostics to top football players. The exact details of this inventiveness will remain the blacksmith’s secret, according to Kriesels. ‘Let’s just say we hold the DNA map up in various different ways, allowing us to constantly look at the data from different perspectives. Reading a DNA map like that has never been globally done like this before.’
ON THE MARKET WITHIN THREE YEARS
Omnigen and Support Casper received a grant from the European Union in 2017, which made their research possible. Approximately 200 patients participated with the study together with Support Casper. A new grant will now allow Omnigen to repeat the same study with another patient group, in order to validate the results found in a larger group of patients. ‘We also work together with hospitals in Antwerp and Leiden,’ Kriesels says, who wants to have introduced his innovation to the market within three years. ‘These types of processes normally take around five to ten years, but I want things done much quicker than that. If that’s possible anywhere in the world, it’s definitely Rotterdam.’
Omnigen and Support Casper can start working on the next steps once the scientific substantiation, with the accompanying CE marking, has been realised. Kriesels: ‘We can roll this out worldwide. For example, we want to see how this would work on other continents, as people’s DNA is structured differently there. That’s certainly an interesting next step. We can also look at how this would affect other cancers, which are also treated with FOLFIRINOX.’
Van Eijck: ‘But the very first follow-up step should be: see which treatment does work for people who don’t respond to FOLFIRINOX. That will allow us to really improve patients’ chances. Increasing that six percent percentage, that’s what it’s all about. We need to extend as many people’s lives as possible, as well as improve their quality of life. It would truly be groundbreaking if we could successfully realise this.’
Van Eijck naturally hopes the project will be a huge success, but certainly also realises that he and Kriesels have quite a formidable opponent: the pharmaceutical industry. ‘They won’t benefit from this, as they’ll clearly be able to see their medicine will soon only be prescribed half as much. Please note: this concerns 57,000 patients annually in the EU, with 60,000 euros in medication costs per treatment per patient! I think: patients should have access to all possible medication, regardless of the cost. But on one condition: that research is linked to this. Making sure we’ll soon be able to predict a great deal more effectively and accurately who’ll be successful and who won’t. The absolute best scenario would be if we could oblige pharmaceutical companies to contribute to research like this. Or introduce a chemotherapy tax.’
Kriesels: ‘It’s currently easier to pay for expensive medication than to commit ourselves to seeing how we can really make someone better. Plus health insurers also say: not treating a patient is not covered. Our other mission is to give health insurers a huge wake-up call. For the time being we’re pleased that the EU does see that this can offer enormous added value. And that we are therefore now ready to take the next steps.’
Would you like to know more about the collaboration between Omnigen and Prof. Dr. Casper van Eijck? When why not watch the LSH010 breakfast, broadcast on Thursday 17th June, via this link. Or contact Omnigen’s founder and CEO Berry Kriesels direct via LinkedIn or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Date: 1 March 2022