Shaping Europe’s Vision for Personalised Medicine

Considered a European expert on biomarkers, IBBL’s CEO, Dr Catherine Larue, was asked to contribute to the recently-published Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) developed by the PerMed consortium.

Dr Larue, can look back on a long career in research, first in “in vitro” diagnostics and then more specifically in biomarker research. Her long record of publications and patents includes the development of the first blood-based biomarker to identify a heart attack, a test used routinely in hospitals around the globe. As one of the experts in biomarker science, she is regularly consulted regarding strategies to advance personalised medicine.

Interview by Sarah Weiler (S.W.)

S.W.: Why is personalised medicine important for the future of healthcare?

C.L.: Personalised medicine is essentially about treating the right patient, at the right time, with the right drug, at the right dosage. In practice this is largely based on so called “biomarkers” – most often molecules that can be tested to identify a defect in a protein or a metabolite or a gene and can help to target therapy for a given patient. By adapting treatments to individual patients, we will have the potential to substantially improve their treatment, limiting the costs to our healthcare systems.

Even though academic and industrial researchers in the field have made important strides, we still have a long way to go. Not only in terms of the research that needs to be carried out (i.e. the discovery of new biomarkers, new pathways), but especially in translating these discoveries into tangible solutions and drugs for the patients, something that we know is often a long and rocky road. So in other words, we need better drugs, may be combination of drugs and companion tests alongside.

S.W.: You contributed to the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) developed by PerMed. How did you get involved?

C.L.: In 2008, the European Commission (EC) consulted experts on biomarkers and personalised medicine to prepare a large conference on Personalised Medicine in Brussels. The Commission wanted the input from the scientific community in order to make informed decisions about what needed to be changed to start successfully implementing personalised medicine in Europe. I was asked to be part of such panel of experts. Between 2009 and 2010, we came together in groups of 10-20 people, organised by themes (i.e. omics, clinical studies, health economics, patients). We also worked closely with the Personalised Medicine Unit at the EC, headed by Dr Irene Norstedt. Our task was to identify hurdles and bottlenecks and then recommend specific actions that will help advance personalised medicine.

When the PerMed consortium was officially formed after the 2011 event, its members originated from these panels of experts and additional European healthcare stakeholders. They fine-tuned recommendations, which have now been published in June 2015 in a white paper called “Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda”.

The report essentially outlines the current challenges, including public awareness, big data, the translation from bench to bedside, marketability and adaptions needed in our healthcare systems. It then provides 35 concrete recommendations on how best to address these challenges in order for personalised medicine to become thoroughly integrated in our healthcare systems.

S.W.: Are there any specific implications for IBBL?

C.L.: What’s interesting to note is that even back then when I wasn’t working at IBBL, I underlined the importance of biobanks in pushing personalised medicine forward. Biomarkers need to be validated on samples from thousands of patients before they can be used in the clinic. So you need top-notch biobanks to collect, handle and store high quality samples correctly. This is crucial, especially when you see how many biomarkers fail in thevalidation step, because pre-analytical conditions were not controlled tightly enough in early experiments. Our recommendations reflect this need for useful biobanks.

A European focus on personalised medicine is also good news for Luxembourg’s biomedical sector in general. Our government has been investing in personalised medicine for years: initially with the Life Sciences and Technologies Action plan, which led to the creation of IBBL and the Personalised Medicine Consortium (PMC), then with the continuous support of Luxembourg’s biomedical research institutes and infrastructures. And now that Luxembourg holds the presidency of the council of the EU, the government has made personalised medicine a key element in the presidency health programme. They actually organised a conference on the topic that attracted many European decision makers in health and research and I was very happy to be able to present IBBL and our approach to personalised medicine.

S.W.:  How will the report be used?

C.L.: The recommendations in the report have already been used. Indeed they were prepared for the decision makers in the Commission in preparation for the new research funding programme Horizon 2020, which was launched in December 2013. Much of the programme’s research in healthcare is focused on personalised medicine and most of those calls for proposals that were launched are based on our recommended actions. The next wave of calls to be published later this year is expected to include many of the remaining recommendations. So overall I am very pleased to see that the Commission has taken our suggestions on board and we are moving in the right direction.

Read the full Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda

© Illustration: The PerMed SRIA: ‘Shaping Europe’s Vision for Personalised Medicine’ (2015)