28 September 2018

Utrecht Molecular Immunology Hub

New perspectives and new ideas

Janine Schuurman

New perspectives and new ideas

Biotech company Genmab creates and develops therapeutic antibodies for the treatment of different types of cancer. It is an international company, with its Research and Development Center in Utrecht, in a brand new building next to the Hubrecht Institute. Janine Schuurman explains Genmab's choice for Utrecht.

More to it than mere history

Genmab is internationally active, with a strong focus on the US and European markets. The company is also a partner in the, rather local, Molecular Immunology Hub. Why are there such strong ties with Utrecht? "We have strong and long-standing partnerships with multiple research groups at both the university and the university medical center", says Janine Schuurman, Corporate Vice President Research and Innovation at Genmab. "Our company is international, and there is a substantial Dutch contribution to its history and its foundation. Our CEO, Jan van de Winkel, who co-founded Genmab, holds a professorship of Immunotherapy at Utrecht University and we have been located here at the campus since the company was founded in 1999. " But there has to be more to it than mere history? "Of course there is. The main reason we chose to create our new Research & Development Center here and to join the Hub is the overall high level and broad scope of immunology research of the Utrecht-based groups, institutes and companies. From basic research into structure-function relationships to translational research at the UMC Utrecht, it is all here."

Studying infections will teach us a lot about how the immune system operates. This illustrates the beauty of science

You can't do it on your own

For Schuurman, and Genmab as a whole, collaborating with academic groups is a prerequisite for industrial success, also when it comes to fundamental research that has no immediate or obvious link to the company's development programs. "Our priority is to develop therapeutic products that really benefit patients. To achieve that, it is essential that we have a very deep and thorough understanding of the molecules we develop. You need fundamental insights into, for example, structure-function relationships. That is why we team up with structural biology leaders like Albert Heck and Piet Gros. There is no way a company can acquire that level of understanding on its own. You need input from others, who approach your questions from different perspectives and thus come up with different solutions."

That also explains why Genmab is a partner in the Molecular Immunology Hub, partly coordinated by Suzan Rooijakkers. "Studying infections will teach us a lot about how the immune system operates. This illustrates the beauty of science; it is about being curious and discovering new territories. It always leads to new ideas and that is why it is so valuable to us." At the same time, there is the clear view towards tangible applications. "That is what we share with Suzan as well. Whether you work on infectious diseases or on cancer, the ultimate goal is to develop new therapies and help patients. Partnerships like these also offer us inspiration for translational research. Taking the step from basic insight to clinical application is never straightforward and we are keen to tap into build expertise on this together with the UMCU groups that participate in the Hub."

Building trust

But partnerships between academia and industry can sometimes lead to tension and friction, when there are different interests or stakeholders involved. How do you ensure that both sides benefit equally? "It is all about trust", Schuurman says without hesitation. "And building trust requires time and proximity certainly helps. That is why I enjoy our location so much. It is so easy to just meet the people you work with in person. It is all very informal and open, and that is essential. Another important point is to respect each other's expertise. However, most important is that we all share the ambition to really understand the immune system, to drive science forward and help patients."

Janine Schuurman
Genmab B.V.
Uppsalalaan 15
3584 CT Utrecht