“With Leiden as our base, treatment can be brought closer to cancer patients in Europe, speeding up transportation and allowing for swifter intervention.”
– Arjen Schippers, Senior Director and Program Head of Europe Cell Therapy Facility about BMS’ choice for Leiden.
Due to CAR T-cell therapy, the outlook for blood cancer patients is now much more positive. Developed in 2018, this breakthrough treatment can in most cases effectively destroy cancer cells. Global pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) began construction of Europe’s first CAR T-cell therapy production centre in 2021. From its facility at Leiden Bio Science Park, the US pharma pioneer will bring treatment closer to cancer patients throughout Europe.
According to Arjen Schippers, BMS senior director and programme head in Leiden, having the new facility in the Greater Rotterdam – The Hague area will bring important benefits: “Leiden Bio Science Park’s stellar reputation and the availability of high-level expertise and talent will greatly benefit us. We will also be able to take full advantage of the excellent logistics at nearby Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam.”
BMS broke ground on the new facility at the end of 2021, with production expected to commence mid-2023.
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A novel and highly effective treatment, CAR T-cell therapy boosts patients’ natural resistance cells, so-called T-cells. “Using a special blood sampling technique, T-cells are extracted from the blood and programmed to recognise cancer cells”, explains Arjen. “Once the cells are reintroduced into the body, the programmed T-cells go to work removing cancer cells.”
For now, most cell therapies, including those developed by BMS, focus on blood cancers. Arjen says: “Those cancer cells are the most accessible, offering a clear starting point for targeting increasingly complex types of cancer.”
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Arjen expects cell therapies to play a significant role in oncological treatments because of the positive results with limited side effects. Furthermore, the facility’s location will make treatment much more accessible to patients throughout Europe.
“The central position and the Greater Rotterdam – The Hague area’s great infrastructure really help”, says Arjen. “Logistics are essential for successful treatment. Blood samples are transported to the production centre at -150 °C, where they are programmed before being returned to the hospital at the same temperature. The cells currently have to be transported to and from the United States. However, the facility at Leiden Bio Science Park will speed up the process, making CAR T-cell therapy accessible to European patients within a shorter timeframe.”
Supported by InnovationQuarter
It was not just the convenient location and the excellent infrastructure that convinced BMS to choose Leiden. The support offered by local partners was also pivotal.
“Organisations such as the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, InnovationQuarter and Leiden Bio Science Park accommodated us right from the start”, recalls Arjen. “They provided relevant information, answered our questions, organised location tours, helped with permit applications and connected us with people in the life science network. Their support kickstarted everything and ensured a smooth process. It confirmed what we already thought: Leiden is the perfect city for our European production facility.”
Prepared for the future
CAR T-cell therapies were only approved for the European market in 2020 and have since been covered by basic health insurance.
From Arjen’s perspective, there are many opportunities for optimising production processes and expanding the application to include other types of cancer: “Ideally, in the future, we will not even need a patient’s own cells for the therapy. Instead, we could grow our own programmed CAR T-cells to match a large patient population. This would drastically reduce turnaround time, making the therapy much more accessible to everyone around the globe. Opening our facility in Leiden is a brilliant step towards reaching that goal.”