With so much excellent cancer research already being done in the Netherlands, what value can a new organization add? That question was answered today in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Máxima, who officially opened Oncode Institute with an elegant gesture.


H.M. Queen Máxima officially launches Oncode Institute

Desiree Hoving

Her Majesty Queen Máxima arrives at the KIT Royal Tropical Institute to launch Oncode Institute – Photo by Bas Uterwijk for Oncode Institute

Relive the launch

With a characteristic smile, the Queen turned and placed her right hand on a screen at the spot where an orange dot was projected. Then she swiped right with a flourish, starting an animated clip on a larger screen. The dot proceeded to perform various functions, such as linking up with a lot of other dots to illustrate the fact that Oncode Institute is a network, not a building. The audience in the Queen Máxima Theatre at the KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam applauded loudly at the end. The new Oncode Institute was officially open.

I’m doing well, I hope, but the difficulty is that you never really know exactly how you’re doing.

The Queen didn’t need to say much. That was the job of Robbert-Jan Stegeman, who walked beside her. A colon cancer patient, he was there to represent the importance of Oncode Institute for people living with the disease. “How are you doing?” asked moderator Lex Bohlmeijer. “I’m doing well, I hope, but the difficulty is that you never really know exactly how you’re doing,” said Stegeman, who is participating in experimental research into new medicines. For him, it’s vitally important that patients get quicker access to new drugs. Until now, they’ve had to wait decades. “I think the most important thing is that there’s always hope,” Stegeman said, referring in part to the launch of Oncode Institute.

What matters most is that we trust each other instead of seeing each other as competitors.

Everyone who followed him on stage expressed great hope. “We all want to put an end to cancer,” said Hans Bos, Oncode Institute’s chief scientific officer and a professor of molecular cancer research at Utrecht University. “We’re already working together, but we can take it up a notch. What matters most is that we trust each other instead of seeing each other as competitors.” Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, added, “Collaboration is important not only for the advancement of science but also for getting drugs onto the market faster.” She expressed the hope that Oncode Institute would set an example that would encourage collaboration in other sectors.

General director Ton Rijnders welcomes Her Majesty Queen Máxima – Photo by Bas Losekoot for Oncode Institute

Oncode is a model for the whole world, I can't emphasize that enough.

David Livingston of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, who had flown in for the opening, was most outspoken about the added value of a new organization. “Oncode is a model for the whole world,” he said. ”I can't emphasize that enough. It's a thrill to see a whole country come together around a disease that you all hate. You don't see that every day.” He illustrated the importance of Oncode Institute using a single powerful example: the aggressive, incurable brain tumour glioblastoma multiforme. Surgery doesn’t help because the cancer affects the entire brain. Drugs can’t reach it. And because the tumour is heterogeneous, it always comes back. The disease is so complicated that it cannot be cured without a coordinated attack, Livingston explained. But “Oncode Institute will outsmart this tumour.”

I’d like to ask the life scientists here: what’s the percentage of dark matter in your field?

In the fight against cancer, fundamental research will be crucial, as Robbert Dijkgraaf emphasized. The director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, had also travelled from the United States to attend the opening. He expressed amusement being invited as a theoretical physicist to entertain the audience. “A cosmologist knows the universe consists of 95% dark matter and dark energy. I’d like to ask the life scientists here: what’s the percentage of dark matter in your field?" Dijkgraaf mentioned a book entitled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, for which he wrote a companion essay. When scientists don’t have to worry about potential applications, the former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences pointed out, revolutionary breakthroughs can often be the result.

The Managing Board, Angus Livingstone, Hans Bos and Ton Rijnders, are interviewed by moderator Lex Bohlmeijer – Photo by Bas Uterwijk for Oncode Institute

Oncode Institute’s unique contribution to the field of cancer research lies in the opportunities it offers for fundamental research, the collaboration it fosters between science and business, and its efforts to translate that knowledge for patients’ benefit. More information can be found in the book every launch attendee received, the first copy of which was presented to Her Majesty Queen Máxima. If you weren’t able to attend, you can read Oncode’s founding principles here.

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