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Gita Gallé: ‘Continuity in pediatric oncological research under pressure due to coronavirus crisis’

Invest heavily in innovative diagnostics and treatment. That is the only way we can achieve what pediatric oncology strives for: to cure all children child with cancer, with the best quality of life possible. But the global coronavirus crisis casts a strong shadow. Gita Gallé, Princess Máxima Center Board of Directors: ‘The continuity of our research is hanging in the balance now that additional funding is noticeably declining.’

Only with innovative research – at our center and in (inter)national partnerships – can we improve the recovery and the quality of life and survival of children with cancer. This is stated in ‘Targeted and promising’, the long-term strategy 2020-2024 in which the Princess Máxima Center describes the route to achieving the mission: to cure all children child with cancer, with the best quality of life possible. Gita Gallé, Board of Directors: ‘To stand still is to go backwards, especially in view of the major leaps we have to make in pediatric oncology research. But the coronavirus crisis – which is rightly receiving a great deal of attention – is already having a significant impact on the financial continuity in scientific research in the short term. This threatens to slow down the acquisition of knowledge at our center.’

More critical mass
Upon its opening in June 2018, the Princess Máxima Center was at once the largest pediatric oncology center in Europe. The pooling of expertise has created much more critical mass and interaction, thereby enhancing the quality and diversity of both scientific research and care. Gallé says, ‘That’s what we see in our research department. In recent years it has grown to over 400 researchers. There are currently more than 35 research groups active. We have been able to recruit talented, excellent researchers from home and abroad, as evidenced by prestigious prizes and scholarships won by our researchers.’

Sources running dry
The research department is of course not at risk, Gita Gallé emphasizes. There is a solid basis in the annual core funding from the Foundation KiKa and the contribution from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport’s Administrative Rule on Availability of Academic Care Contribution. In addition, project funding from KWF Dutch Cancer Society, Dutch Research Council and European funds, supplemented by private sources such as Villa Joep, provides essential contributions. Not to mention the funds raised by the Princess Máxima Center Foundation. But, Gallé must conclude, because of the coronavirus crisis, some of these sources are in danger of running dry. ‘Income from fundraising is already starting to decline, for example because charitable organizations cannot organize public actions. Rounds for cancer research are being cancelled and we see that budgets of grant organizations – also at European level – are being reallocated.’

Further growth necessary
The care for the children treated in the Máxima Center is paid for by the health insurance companies. The research – an indispensable part of the comprehensive approach that makes the center a success – is largely guaranteed by the core funding from the Foundation KiKa and the government. Gita Gallé: ‘But that doesn’t mean we’re there. To be able to make real steps – especially in our focal areas of neuro-oncology and immuno-oncology – we need to continue to grow. Now that incidental funding in particular is under pressure, a scenario arises where parts of our research into innovative diagnostics and treatment come to a standstill. Bear in mind that according to data from the International Society of Pediatric Oncology (SIOP) only nine new innovative medicines have been developed for children at European level in the last decade, compared to 150 for adult patients with cancer. There is a real risk that this share will become even smaller.’

Keeping momentum
What are possible ways out now? Gita Gallé has great confidence in the strength of the broad partnership that has made the Princess Máxima Center what it is today. ‘This is a unique joint initiative of parents, practitioners, sponsors – from large funds and insurers to private donors – and authorities. Everyone is convinced of the importance of the mission, because cancer is still the main cause of death of children in the Netherlands. The center as such is not at all at risk, unlike the expansion of research. For this we simply depend on additional financing, which is noticeably declining due to the global coronavirus crisis. The debate on the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport budget by the House of Representatives in early November will rightly address this crisis – as well as the pressure on the budgetary macro framework for healthcare and the labor market issues facing the sector. How wonderful it would be if, in addition to this, attention were also paid to building up the oncological knowledge infrastructure. It is crucial that we can keep up the momentum in the progress of innovations in the treatment of children with cancer.’