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Belgium as pioneer in ATMPs: now and in the future

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Backed by increasing investments from commercial sponsors, the development of advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMP) is growing strongly in the United Kingdom. For good reason, the country is described as a growing hub for the development and manufacturing of cell and gene therapies. Less well-known is the fact that Belgium is also one of the leading countries when it comes to development and innovation of ATMPs. What are the Belgian success factors and what will the future bring?

Belgium as leader in biotech and cross-over innovation

Although less proclaimed than our neighbours in the west, Belgium has a very mature ecosystem when it comes to biotechnology, medical innovations and their application in ATMPs. In regions like the United States and Asia, our country enjoys international recognition as a leader in the development of new medicines, pioneering application of biotechnology and innovative, cross-over tools and processes in the biopharmaceutical sector.

There are several reasons for Belgium being at the forefront in these fields. First of all being a clinical trial leader, Belgium can fast track innovations to the patient. While we mainly see a top-down programme in the UK, Belgium is characterised by a bottom-up approach. Because of less (governmental) funding, we develop more innovative ways to bring medicines and therapies to patients. In addition, we have an ecosystem that has been built and optimised over the years, based on the knowledge and expertise of the first generation biotech and ATMP pioneers & entrepreneurs and contributing to the success of today. Not to mention the geographically small, highly connected network with short communication lines, and the intrinsic innovative character of Belgian people.

Last but not least, the regional presence of companies focused on biopharma, medical devices and new product technologies, including nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, and the cross-over combination of innovation in technology and life sciences, accelerates the development of our strong, innovation oriented industry. In its turn, this industry also stimulates the scientific research in our country, for example clinical studies in hospitals.

The future: personalised and precision medicines

One of the fields in which especially Flanders is the European pioneer, is personalised and precision medicines. Instead of classic mass-produced medicines, these medicines pay attention to the effect of individual variabilities in disease treatment and prevention. ATMPs based on cell or gene therapies can become the perfect example of this emerging generation of ‘tailor-made’ medicines.

The research and development of these new types of therapy and medicines will become more and more important in the years to come, because the current model is not made to last. This existing model is built on the idea that one medicine fits all, which can’t do any harm but also only works for a fraction of the intended people. In the meantime, society defrays the expenses. It’s time to look further than the price of medicines, and also take into account patient outcome and the effect on quality of life. Personalised or precision therapies and medicines might be more expensive on their own, but their outcome will contribute to an improved quality of life in the long term and thus lower the overall cost of social security. Hence, health economics is becoming an important tool to understand and develop a strategy towards a sustainable healthcare system.

This means that classic pharmaceutical models will have to change: the one-treatment-fits-all principle, the long-term projects, the business models and supply chains. We need to work towards a future with local production of therapies, specialised hospitals aimed at specific disorders, or maybe even small ‘medicine factories’ at GPs. I have faith that companies, governments, researchers, hospitals, insurance companies, patients’ associations and regulatory authorities will join forces to realise this new stakeholder model: we are a leader in innovation for good reason.

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