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Princess Máxima Center coördinates European Training Network for preclinical drug development

They have been awarded at least 3.9M euros by the European Union. The funding is meant for setting up a network of fifteen PhD students from all around Europe, who will work together on pre-clinical drug development for children suffering from cancer. Celina Szanto still has to defend her PhD, but she is responsible for coordinating this new exciting European program in the Princes Máxima Center. ‘We want to accelerate the transfer of new discoveries to clinical trials.’
In December, Celina will defend her PhD at the UMC Utrecht about tumor immunology. Smiling, she says that the defense was delayed because of the Corona pandemic, but it turned out to be very convenient. Now that the ITN VAGABOND grant proposal has been awarded, on the initial attempt, in the coming months she has a tough job together with Marjon Bleeker from the Finance Department to get the network started. Celina says: ‘The Princess Máxima Center is the coordinator of a so-called Educational Training Network, which is meant to educate early early stage researcher. We received the good news in May, and we can start in December.’

Accelerate to clinical trails
In the VAGABOND network there are twelve academic centers from eight European countries, augmented by six pharmaceutical companies. ‘By connecting the study results of different small patient groups across the network, collectively we can take bigger steps to our goal,’ says Celina. ‘It’s nice that we can work with industry. Thus, we can translate new discoveries quicker into clinical trials.’ In total fifteen PhD students will be hired for three years, of which three will work at the Máxima. They do not only work on their PhD research, but follow an intensive training program which include four one-week summer schools (of which two are in Utrecht) and three network wide meetings.

Multidisciplinary approach
Celina finds the multidisciplinary approach of the program interesting. The participants not only work within the network, but from the start they are also in contact with clinicians and pharmaceutical companies. To accelerate the translation of research to the clinic, researchers need to work intensively with people from other disciplines. In this program we also adhere to this principle. The education focuses not only on pre-clinical research skills and oncological knowledge, but also includes themes such as communication skills, dissemination of research results, project management, entrepreneurship and intellectual property. The researchers eventually become aware and learn how to navigate the world of developing new medicines.

Data sharing
Celina says: ‘An example is research about neuroblastoma. Immunotherapy for adults that works well, is not always effective for children. Using single cell sequencing, we can find out which cells are involved in causing relapse, then using so called checkpoint inhibitors which result in better tumor targeting, we can create more effective therapies.’ It’s unknown which of the fifteen research projects will ultimately make it to actual clinics. Celina says, ‘We expect that one to three studies will be proposed for clinical trials. But the knowledge gained from the projects is nevertheless important for the advances in pediatric oncology.’ Celina is confident about the program. All partners in the program are very cooperative. ‘Every partner is willing to share their data at early phases. This is important because only by working together, can we take bigger steps in developing better treatments.’

More information
VAGABOND stands for: ‘Validation of Actionabel (Epi) Genomic ABberations in a pediatric Oncology Network for Doctorate Students’. ITN means ‘Innovative Training Network’. The program is financed by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, as part of Horizon 2020. The program is embedded in the Innovative Therapies for Children with Cancer (ITCC) consortium. In the proposal-preparation-phase Marjon Bleeker of the Finance Department and the PMC Academy offered a lot of support. Celina works as projectmanager in the group of Jan Molenaar.