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New route for timely patient access to new medical products

February 28 2018

SMEs and patient organisations work together

Accelerating medicine development and timely patient access to these new products is currently challenging the systems in place, both at a national and EU level. Therefore, we need new strategies that facilitate the translation of innovative basic research into medical products and accelerate patients’ access to promising therapies, thereby fulfilling unmet medical needs. At the same time, patient organisations are seen as important partners for innovation, also shown by their increased involvement in the Horizon 2020 programmes.

Dutch Arthritis Foundation (DAF)

The Dutch Arthritis Foundation (DAF) is pioneering amongst Dutch national health funds by introducing a new strategy to accelerate the development of medicines. Our interview with Ingrid Lether (Manager Research and Innovation) discusses the potential of this new path.

ttopstart: How would you describe the vision of the Dutch Arthritis Foundation?

Ingrid Lether: “Our vision is a world where people are unaffected by arthritis. Therefore, our goal is to bring new medical therapies to the patients. As the largest independent financer of arthritis research in The Netherlands, DAF aims at finding new strategies to fight rheumatic diseases.”

ttopstart: How do you want to achieve this goal? Most research results never get translated into medical products, as pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest in high-risk projects.

Ingrid Lether: “We want to motivate scientists to start companies and/or to find industrial partners to convert their research results into products. In the era of personalised medicine, development of new medical therapies is increasingly complex. Therefore, it is our conviction that new developments need to take their origin in SMEs, where highly skilled experts are leading the development. To accelerate the translation from research to drug, we have established a new programme – where we offer loans to SMEs in order to reach the proof of concept stage. If a product is successfully developed, DAF will receive its loans and may participate in the revenues. Of course, that may be five to ten years later.”

ttopstart: At what stage do you want to make impact? What gaps are you addressing in the route to commercialisation?

Ingrid Lether: “We want to help promising ideas to cross the valley of death – this is the phase between basic research until the proof of concept trials. We have seen that this high-risk stage is a major barrier for many research projects to cross. After this stage, there is other funding to cover phase II and III clinical trials or to catch the attention of (big) pharmaceutical companies. DAF can be seen as matchmaker, supporting SMEs with our valuable network.”

ttopstart: Since when have you been following this new path and how do you know what the unmet medical need is? What helps you to decide what SMEs you want to fund?

Ingrid Lether: “We are at the very beginning. Early 2017 we signed a contract with an SME in Utrecht and at the end of last year another one with one in Maastricht. Currently we are also negotiating with another interesting SME. The DAF is in a very good position to define the unmet medical need. We have experts in-house who are assessing the potential of our running research proposals. This gives us the confidence needed to invest in SMEs that started out from research funded by DAF. Here, we take into account the possible competition in the field, assess how innovative the idea is and see if there is a willingness from big pharma to collaborate as projects mature.”

ttopstart: The engagement of patient organisations in the development of new therapies is indeed very promising. It also shows the new self-confidence of patients, who are now facilitating the development of new therapies. Where is this going?

Ingrid Lether: “We cannot cure chronic diseases yet, but patients realise that they can steer and accelerate the development of new drugs. They are doing that by supporting DAF, and we are stimulating scientists to get patients’ involvement in the setup and goals of their research. Moreover, by helping SMEs to cross the valley of death and to find new investors, patient organisations can find a new source of income. We have seen similar programmes already been met with great success in the US. Now, we would like to encourage other organisations to join us on this path.”

Crossing the valley of death is the rate-limiting step for many high-potential research lines to reach clinical fruition. In the current trend of empowered patients where healthcare is being transformed by more involvement of patients, DAF is taking lead of empowering patients to direct the development of therapies.

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Helene Knaus, PhD
+31 (0)30 73 70 779