Striving to make a difference for patients in Europe
Cell therapy, more specifically CAR T-cell therapy, is a relatively new and highly individualised way to treat patients with specific types of blood cancer, for whom other treatments have failed. Approved by the European Medicine Agency (EMA) in 2018, Kite’s therapy, in essence, works with a type of white blood cell (T-cell). This is taken from a patient, in a European hospital, and is then transported to the Kite facility in the Netherlands. Here, the cells are engineered and multiplied, after which they are sent back and administered to the same patient. These “reprogrammed” T cells, aim to recognise and attack the cancer cells.
“Before our production facility was here, in the Amsterdam Area, the only way Kite could supply patients in Europe with cell therapy, was to fly to and from our production site in Los Angeles”, says Van de Wiel, who is the VP Operations and Site Head for Kite in Hoofddorp. “That was not ideal, considering the patients who are in need of this treatment are critically ill and often have little time left. Plus, it really is a precision task to transport cells; this has to be done under very strict conditions in terms of time and temperature.”Louis Van de Wiel
Kite was established as a company in Santa Monica in 2009. In 2015, Kite bought T Cell Factory in Amsterdam, a spin-off from NKI, to further contribute to the development of cell therapy. At that time, the number of employees on the Dutch team was just three. Kite was later purchased by the US-owned biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, in 2017.
Having moved to a brand new 19,000m2 facility in Hoofddorp, in March 2020, Kite has currently over 600 highly skilled employees and contractors, and is still hiring 20-30 people a month. They can supply up to 4,000 cell therapy treatments a year, which they expect to double in the foreseeable future. From its only production facility in Europe, Kite works in close collaboration with over 150 European hospitals to supply cell therapy to patients in 17 countries.
Looking at the future, there’s no sign of things slowing down. “This is only just the beginning,” says Van de Wiel, about the prospects of cell therapy. “We believe that this approach could become the basis for the treatment of many more types of cancer.”
The Amsterdam Area: great logistics and a steady supply of scientific talent
As this is a tailor-made treatment - with cells needing to be taken from a patient and infused back into the same individual, there’s no doubt that cell therapy comes with some unique logistical requirements. “Once the cells have been taken, we have around 70 hours to transport them to our manufacturing facility. Furthermore, they have to be kept within a constant, 4-8 degree Celsius temperature range. And, after engineering, on their way back, it’s even -150 degrees Celsius,” Van de Wiel explains. “With Amsterdam Schiphol Airport being a major European transport hub, our location next to it provides us with quick and convenient access to all of Europe, which is crucial to our operation. It just makes sense for us to be situated here, in this area.”
Additionally, Van de Wiel mentions the arrival of EMA, as a key driver in the field of life sciences & health. “The Netherlands is increasingly becoming a European hub in biotech and pharmaceuticals. This has given new energy to the exchange of knowledge.”
On the note of knowledge, expanding the team has been made easier by Amsterdam’s steady influx of top-level graduates. “The city’s four hospitals are in close proximity and, if you include the centres of Utrecht and Leiden, there are several world-leading (academic) institutes within a 50-kilometre radius of Amsterdam. This all adds up to a highly educated medical talent pool, with an international background. Our team in Hoofddorp currently consists of over 26 nationalities, and the diversity that this brings is extremely important. Different approaches in creative and analytical thinking, all contribute to creating an innovative and dynamic process; which is crucial, since cell therapy is truly a team sport. Diversity results in the best solutions.”
Van de Wiel has a good feeling about the future. “We are pioneers and I firmly believe we are in the position to really make a difference for patients and their families,” Van de Wiel says, “and we’re proud to see this attracts highly motivated researchers and scientists who want to be part of this amazing journey.”
The Amsterdam Area sits at the heart of the European life sciences and health industry. The region thrives on cooperation, driven by the high concentration of its many research institutions, universities, medical centres, corporations and startups. Specialised hubs such as Amsterdam Science Park and the Amsterdam Life Sciences District offer countless opportunities for growth and collaboration, while the European Medicines Agency’s presence in the city ensures high quality innovation. A study in 2021 found developments from the Amsterdam’s Area’s life sciences and health sector have the third highest impact in the world.