A Kite that soars

The scale-up of Kite Pharma is a prime example of how the ecosystem of the life sciences and health sector (LSH) in the Amsterdam Area helps a company grow and flourish faster than expected.

The daughter of California-based biopharma giant Gilead Sciences decided four years ago to set up a research team of immunotherapy specialists in Amsterdam Science Park, chosen for its rare combination of affordable office space, start-ups in bioscience, e-health and deep learning, and easy access to the wet labs and other essential research facilities of the nearby University of Amsterdam medical campus. In the years since, the team has made a breakthrough in cancer research, with the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) as one of its promoters. Kite Pharma’s T-cell immunotherapy re-programmes the immune cells of cancer patients to recognise cancer cells and eliminate them. Recently Kite Pharma announced it was investing in a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for its cancer cell therapies at SEGRO Park Amsterdam Airport in Hoofddorp.

Life Sciences and Health in the Amsterdam Area

Gilead’s CEO at the time, John Milligan, said: "This facility will enable us to manufacture personalised cell therapies close to the patients who will receive them, potentially shortening the turnaround time for people who urgently need care." What started as a research project in Amsterdam Science Park will by 2020 evolve into a 117,000-square metre, high-biotech production facility, creating 300-plus jobs and making the developed immunotherapy available to cancer patients around the world. Flourish indeed.

Standing out

The ecosystem of life sciences and health-related activities in and around the Amsterdam Area is vibrant and remarkable in numerous ways. But it most stands out compared to the other 230 LSH-clusters worldwide because of its high degree of interconnectivity and its  low thresholds. There are some 300 companies in the Amsterdam Area involved in a wide variety of health-improving activities, including med-tech manufacturers Stryker Corporation and Philips, and (bio)pharmaceutical brands Novartis and Genzyme. 

Life Sciences and Health in the Amsterdam Area

Pioneers in e-health applications, such as Castor EDC, gather in one of the region’s four science parks designed to facilitate their scale-up, with a network of service providers that grows with the ecosystem in size, number and professionalism. Although their business perspectives differ, all are drawn to the region’s superior infrastructure – both physical and digital – an international-oriented talent pool and relatively easy access to both a rich source of independent scientific research and public medical data. There are two academic medical centres, which recently merged to form Amsterdam UMC, and a specialised cancer research institute (NKI/Antoni van Leeuwenhoek) within a five mile radius from the heart of the capital. Together, they produce the third-largest health-related scientific output in the world, in addition to the necessary patient data for clinical and bio-medical research. 

Close to the gatekeeper

By the end of 2018, the ecosystem was given an extra boost when the European Medicines Agency (EMA) moved from London to Amsterdam following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The EMA does roughly for continental Europe what the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does for the US: It decides whether new medicines and therapies should be allowed access to European markets, and supports health-related developments and innovations. That the EMA is located on the doorstep of the LSH-cluster means the complex approval process for new medicines and therapies can be observed, and guided if needed, from close by.

This has the potential to considerably shorten the time to market for new products and treatments, and it is a proven nucleus for new activities. "Many companies like to have offices close to us," says EMA’s Executive Director Guido Rasi. "It happened in London, and it will happen in Amsterdam, too." Professor Rasi’s prediction is already proving true. Following EMA’s announcement that it would set up shop in Amsterdam, many firms followed its lead. Legal firm Bird & Bird opened an affiliate in Amsterdam’s Zuidas business district, where EMA will be located when its permanent home is completed at the end of 2019. As a specialist in patent rights, Bird & Bird wants to be close to the gatekeeper of European markets. Pharmaceuticals firm Novartis is also moving its Dutch operations to the Amsterdam Area in EMA’s wake.

Low Thresholds

Another competitive advantage of the Amsterdam Area ecosystem is its accessibility, as seen in the creation of the Amsterdam UMC Imaging Center. Professors Guus van Dongen and Bert Windhorst, renowned specialists in radiology and nuclear medicine, have brought together every known cutting-edge imaging technique to one location on the Amsterdam UMC Medical Center’s campus. This shortens the waiting time for patients in need of MRI-, CT- or PET-scans and improves the quality of medical diagnoses; it also enables attending physicians to observe the effects treatments have on patients in real time – a big step up for healthcare in Europe.

Bert Windhorst and Guus van Dongen at Amsterdam UMC Imaging Centre

Professors Bert Windhorst and Guus van Dongen

In doing so, they’ve also created a unique lab allowing pharmaceutical and biopharma companies to reduce their research time while cutting costs. "Using our imaging facilities, by far the most sophisticated in Europe, makes it possible for them to establish at an early stage whether a newly-developed medicine or treatment is doing what it is expected to do, and especially, what it is not supposed to do," explain Windhorst and Van Dongen. "Knowing this shortens the expensive development process by at least half a year, reducing costs considerably." It is essential for the Amsterdam UMC Imaging Center to cooperate closely with companies interested in using its facilities. The contributions of these commercial partners are vital to making the expensive project feasible in the long term. And their numbers are growing as opening day, slated for the autumn of 2019, draws closer. 

Birthday gift

Being among the world’s top five most attractive locations for life sciences and health organisations also brings new challenges. In order to keep pace with competing top ranking clusters in places such as Cambridge, UK, or Boston in the US, an action plan for future next steps was drawn up under the supervision of the Amsterdam Economic Board – the agency tasked with strengthening collaborations between businesses, knowledge institutes and government organisations – and a committee hosted by former minister and UMC chairman Wouter Bos, who also heads the government’s new development and investment institution Invest-NL.

And its ambitions are high. Amsterdam celebrates its 750th birthday in 2025, and as a birthday gift to its inhabitants, city officials want to extend the average life expectancy of all their residents by two years. But it needs the help of local life sciences and health companies to meet its goal. "We add a new dimension by combining the strength of our data science cluster with that of the life sciences and health ecosystem," says Jeroen Maas of the Amsterdam Economic Board.

"The future is in precision health. This demands a close collaboration between the two. Applications based on artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning will change the world of both cure and care immensely by setting new standards for both health prevention and clinical and pharmaceutical treatments to be customised for individual patients. We want to create business examples of the successful integration of data and medical science here." The Amsterdam Area already has all the key elements needed, and they’re only growing. The region has a strong track record in data collection, machine learning and data ethics. And as home to one of the busiest internet crossroads in the world, global connectivity is practically guaranteed. Happy birthday, Amsterdam!