Maybe it’s the small land area and dense population. Maybe it’s the long history of meeting global challenges with major innovations. Or maybe it’s all the good cheese. Whatever the case, the Netherlands has, for decades, been one of the top countries for big ideas and scientific collaboration — and the same holds true for pharma.
Although the Netherlands is roughly the size of Maryland, its biopharma scene packs a big punch in the industry. According to the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, the country is home to about 2,500 life sciences or medical technology companies and research organizations.
This fall, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing was invited on a whirlwind press tour of the country’s biopharma industry that included meetings with dozens of innovative startups and established pharma companies, as well as tours of world-class R&D institutes. All told, the tour covered six cities in three days and demonstrated how the country is a leader in the R&D, manufacturing and regulatory sectors of the pharma. Here are some of the most memorable stops and sights along the way.
Janssen Biologics — Leiden
Although Janssen, the pharmaceutical arm of Johnson & Johnson, develops treatments for a range of therapeutic areas, its Leiden facility is focused on vaccines for some of the world’s most vexing viruses.
Now the largest foreign R&D investor in the Netherlands, Janssen inaugurated its Leiden facility this fall. Commissioned in 2014 to help combat the Ebola outbreak, the new, single-use biomanufacturing facility will allow the company to scale up its full pipeline of vaccines for influenza, Zika, Ebola and more. Janssen is one of several companies — including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline — in the race to bring an Ebola vaccine to market. And the efforts are intensifying as new cases continue to be reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Janssen’s Leiden facility is also focused on developing an HIV vaccine, which company representatives refer to as the “holy grail” of combating the disease. To aid its vaccine development, the company will utilize its proprietary viral vector vaccines technology and PER.C6 manufacturing platform.
Pivot Park (The birthplace of Keytruda) — OSS
This bustling life sciences campus has quite the claim to fame: Years ago, it became the headquarters for a team of Dutch scientists who made the initial (and accidental) discovery that led to the development of Keytruda. The immuno-oncology drug, which was commercially developed by Merck, has since become one of the biggest blockbusters to hit the pharma scene this decade.
Today, Pivot Park is home to dozens of companies and organizations working busily in the field of pharma R&D.
The Pivot Park Screening Centre uses cutting-edge robotics and automation to provide assay development for drug discovery. Acerta Pharma, which is partially owned by AstraZeneca, is also stationed in Pivot Park. Launched in 2013, the company is one of the industry’s leaders in the field of using covalent binding technology to develop novel cancer therapies.
LUMC labs — Leiden
Kidneys are the most commonly transplanted organ (from living donors), and rates of kidney failure are becoming more prevalent around the world. But what if there was a way to regenerate a failing kidney instead of hunting for a donor?
Inside a lab at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), which brings together academic and private sector R&D, a team of researchers have set their microscopes on developing a range of innovative treatments for renal disorders, such as using stem cells to restore organs to their original function. The research is also advancing the field of bioengineering organs, which could pave the way toward artificial kidney replacements.
If successful, the findings in regenerative medicine could be used to treat a range of chronic diseases, and revolutionize the field of organ transplants.
Kite Pharma — Amsterdam
Shortly into his presentation, Markwin Velders, VP of operations and managing director at Kite Pharma’s EU Amsterdam facility, declared that the company is on the cusp of curing cancer.
Kite, which Gilead purchased for $12 billion last year, has indeed developed one of the most promising oncology immunotherapies in the class of CAR-T therapies. In October of 2017, Kite’s Yescarta became the first CAR-T cell therapy approved by the FDA for use in adult patients. Its highly personalized therapy takes a patient’s cells, reengineers them and reintroduces them back into the patient to attack cancer cells.
Handling patient’s cells, however, creates logistical challenges. Which is why the California-based company announced this year that it is opening a 117,000-square-foot facility in Amsterdam. The new plant will allow Kite to more easily and efficiently engineer and deliver cell therapies to patients in the EU. The company said that the Amsterdam facility will create about 300 jobs by 2020.
The new European Medicines Agency headquarters — Amsterdam
A visit to the new European Medicines Agency building, which is under construction, wasn’t officially on the tour, but we caught a glimpse of it on the way into Amsterdam. It was also clear from our meetings that becoming the new seat of the EU’s drug regulations agency has generated a lot of excitement in the Netherlands’ pharma industry.
After the UK voted to leave the EU in 2017, the search was on for a new home for the EMA, which was stationed in London. Along with technical requirements and easy access, the EMA was especially concerned about staff retention for its roughly 900 employees. The agency eventually settled on Amsterdam, which narrowly beat out Milan. It’s a victory that could draw more attention to the industry in the Netherlands, and help boost its reputation as a flourishing hub for pharma.