April 14, 2021

Hartwig Medical Foundation: Innovating to improve cancer care

Hartwig Medical Foundation has developed a unique, state-of-the-art DNA sequencing programme to improve the treatment of cancer patients. By focusing on metastatic cancer patients, it can help medical specialists discover extra treatment options for patients. Alongside its pioneering genome sequencing work, it is also home to one of the world’s most comprehensive DNA-databases on metastatic cancer, which provides a valuable resource for oncological experts around the world.

Creating a new force for cancer patients

Like many stories connected to cancer, Hartwig Medical Foundation’s is one that was forged in the fiery pain of losing a loved one. One of its founders, Hans van Snellenberg, lost his father to the disease in 2006. Realising how promising new knowledge about certain aspects of tumours was for treating patients, Van Snellenberg took part in an initiative to improve cancer care. Nine years later, after he had teamed up with scientific and genetic expert Edwin Cuppen, Emile Voest, medical director of the National Cancer Institute (NKI), Stefan Sleijfer, Head of Oncology Erasmus MC and a generous financial commitment from a philanthropic benefactor, the Foundation was born.

Mapping out patients’ entire DNA

More than half a decade later, Hartwig Medical Foundation’s impact on cancer treatment has been remarkable. The Foundation exists to ensure that every cancer patient receives the most suitable and effective treatment possible. To achieve this, the non-profit helps metastatic cancer patients by mapping out the entire DNA sequence of their blood and tumour tissue, using state-of-the-art next-generation sequencers and robotics in combination with advanced bio-informatics data-analysis software.

The differences between these blood and tissue samples are analysed to give a complete overview of the specific DNA defects of the tumour, allowing specialists to advise the best treatment possible for the patient, including off-label use of medicines or clinical trials. The advantages of this, both medical and financial, are significant: in recent years, expenditure on oncology therapies amounted to €1.2 billion annually, with an average effectiveness rate of 30%. If better stratification led to the identification of just 10% non-responders, it would save €120 million per year.

Creating the world’s biggest database of cancer patients’ DNA

Like for so many organisations working within the Science Park, collaboration is key for the Foundation. The organisation is steadily building the most comprehensive source of data in the world for research into cancer and its treatments. Researchers come from all over the world to access this anonymous, secure database, which comprises genetic data and clinical information from thousands of patients. Ultimately, this helps drive the development of new and existing cancer treatments.

Being based at the Science Park’s Matrix VI building helps the Foundation make all this work possible. “We needed somewhere where we could be independent, that had great connectivity to handle the large amount of data that we generate, and that was a hub for innovation,” Eigenraam explains. “The Science Park offers all that, and it’s also the place where people in the scientific community work and study. It was a natural choice for the foundation.”

A step forward for cancer care

Recently, the Dutch Government agreed a motion to provisionally reimburse whole-genome-based DNA testing for metastatic cancer patients with the biggest medical need, something the Foundation had urged for since its inception. “Together with the Netherlands Cancer Institute we have scientifically proven that what we do works and for the government, hospitals and doctors to see that too was a big step, too,” Eigenraam says. “And, of course, we’re continuing our work to be able to help as many cancer patients as possible through our database and DNA test. That never stops.”

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