Collaboration with South African institute gives UMC Utrecht leading edge in drug research

A global player in drug research is to open a facility in Utrecht. Under the lead agency U-TRIAL (Utrecht Trial Innovation Alliance), South African clinical research institute TASK is establishing a Phase 1 research unit at University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC Utrecht). This will enable the hospital to facilitate the entire research process for new drugs, not just in a particular area, as is the case elsewhere in the Netherlands, but in all six spearheads of UMC Utrecht under one roof.

24 February 2023 5 minutes

We meet the director of U-trial at the Utrecht Science Park. “With the opening of the Phase 1 unit, we will soon be the first academic institution in the Netherlands to facilitate all research phases”, says Peter Gisberts, director of U‑TRIAL, which promotes clinical research at the hospital as part of UMC Utrecht. “This will provide the missing link in the regional research ecosystem and make UMC Utrecht an even more attractive partner. It will also strengthen the local business climate for international companies interested in clinical research.”

Phase 1 research

Phase 1 is the first of four post-laboratory research phases. In this phase, a new drug is tested on humans for the first time. The drug is administered to healthy volunteers or patients under tightly controlled conditions. Due to health risks, Phase 1 trials are always linked to hospitals so that prompt action can be taken in case of complications. In the next three phases, the drug is administered to patients with the condition for which it was developed.


Unique Phase 1 facility

Peter Hermans, professor in Infection and Immunology Trials, is involved in the collaboration on behalf of UMC Utrecht. He explains: “If Phase 1 research takes place with us, there is a good chance that the next phases will also be carried out here. The facility is therefore especially important for both the hospital and our patients, who will have faster access to new and better drugs.”

Gisberts adds: “TASK’s expertise and quality standards are of tremendous value in this respect. As a non-profit global player with an impressive track record in clinical research, the institute is a sound partner for us in setting up this unique facility.”

In the Netherlands, there are currently two facilities for Phase 1 research attached to a university hospital – in Leiden and Groningen. “Both facilities concentrate on a limited number of research areas”, says Hermans. “The facility in Utrecht will be the first and only in-house Phase 1 unit in our country to focus on all of a hospital’s established research areas. The advantage is that no ambulance is required in case of a complication, as clinicians are immediately on hand.”

The six spearheads of UMC Utrecht are cardiovascular diseases, neurosciences, infection and immunology, oncology, paediatrics and regenerative medicine. “We have multifaceted clinical expertise in-house, which makes our facility highly attractive”, asserts Hermans.

TASK landing in Utrecht assisted by Invest in Holland and ROM Utrecht Region

TASK has been working with a number of Dutch universities for around 15 years. Like U-TRIAL, the institute’s ambition is to improve healthcare by facilitating academic research. TASK was introduced to the Dutch network and regional development agency ROM Utrecht Region via NFIA, part of Invest in Holland. ROM Utrecht Region is committed to attracting foreign companies to the region and put TASK in touch with U‑TRIAL and UMC Utrecht.

Gisberts emphasises: “Without ROM Utrecht Region, TASK would probably have ended up in another European country. So, at U-TRIAL, we are immensely pleased with the connecting and supportive role played by the agency.”

Johann de Bruyn, CEO of TASK, expands on the choice of establishment. “Utrecht has an attractive ecosystem for startups and academic institutions. The openness and support of local parties instantly made us feel welcome. From day one, our partners in Utrecht were our colleagues.”

De Bruyn found the assistance TASK received from NFIA, ROM Utrecht Region and Invest in Holland to be an eye-opening experience: “We were pleasantly surprised by the support we received from government agencies. They took us by the hand and introduced us to the relevant parties, including U-TRIAL. It is fantastic to see that regional government bodies are genuinely in touch with the business community here.”

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Strengthening the local ecosystem

In February, TASK will launch operations in Utrecht with some 20 South African employees. Regional staff will join the team and work intensively with both Dutch and international partners. “We believe it is important to integrate well with the local ecosystem”, says De Bruyn. “We want to hire as many employees from the region as possible and contribute to the local labour market. Because we train our employees ourselves, we provide meaningful and stable long-term employment.”

U-TRIAL expects to have the facility up and running in the first half of this year for initial Phase 1 trials. From 2024, the unit should be fully operational, facilitating a large number of research trials.

“We have lofty ambitions at U-TRIAL”, notes Hermans. “Our bar is set high. And it has to be because there is huge demand for clinical research facilities.”

De Bruyn concludes: “It is our long-term goal to give as many academic institutions and universities as possible access to that all-important but high-risk first phase. It is the launchpad for medical innovation and improving healthcare worldwide.”

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