John Haanen:
A career in immuno-oncology

The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I became interested in immunology early in my career. In 1985–1986, when I was a medical student at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, I started doing some immunology research on T-cell clones, which was very new at the time. I then completed a PhD in immunology in the area of infectious diseases at the Leiden University Medical Centre and the DNAX Research Institute in California, USA. I trained in internal medicine at the Leiden University Medical Centre but did not immediately work as an internist. Instead, I did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and started working on the combination of immunology and oncology for the first time—it is here that I have stayed for the rest of my career.

My early research at the Netherlands Cancer Institute brought me in contact with colleagues who I still work with, including my close collaborator, Ton Schumacher—I’m so pleased to be able to look back on a long successful career with such fantastic people.

When I was first a medical oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, I was fortunate to have a position that involved 50% research and 50% clinical work, which was a very good combination for me. I then became Head of the Division of Medical Oncology for almost 9 years, which provided some insightful experience in a managerial role. It was from here that I became interested in being involved with ESMO and, after being invited to give presentations, I became part of the faculty for the congresses of ESMO, ESMO-Asia and ESMO Immuno-Oncology.

At the time I stopped being Head of the Division of Medical Oncology, leader positions were created at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, aimed at focussing research on a limited number of specific themes. In July 2018, I became Leader of the research theme, ‘immunotherapy’—I find this a highly interesting position, for instance, as it allows me to help others to excel. In 2008, I became Professor by specific appointment at Leiden University Medical Centre. My chair is on translational immunotherapy of cancer, a position I still hold.

These achievements are great to look back on, but my work is ongoing, and I am still doing it with a lot of pleasure.

For the future, in terms of research, I would like to continue my longstanding interest in adoptive cell therapies. We have a programme that has been ongoing at the Netherlands Cancer Institute for around 10 years, mostly in melanoma. In the next couple of years, I hope that we can take this programme to a higher level—I would like to get to the stage where adoptive cell therapies become an established treatment that are here to stay. As part of this work, we are running a unique randomised controlled phase 3 trial in Europe that is comparing tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes with standard ipilimumab treatment in metastatic melanoma. I eagerly await the results of the trial, which I hope will show that cell therapy is a meaningful and beneficial therapy for a subgroup of patients with melanoma. In addition, I wish to expand this work to other tumour types.

Of course, I am still working as a medical oncologist and I daily witness how the cancer immunotherapy revolution is impacting on my patients, both in terms of benefit and toxicity. These are extremely exciting times, and I know there is much more to come.

Being a mentor for young oncologists is another of my main goals. As leader of the immunotherapy research theme at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, I hope I can help young oncologists who are as enthusiastic as me about immuno-oncology to develop their careers. I would like to encourage them to excel not only in the Netherlands but also in a wider setting, for example, to become involved with ESMO and other organisations. I accepted an invitation to become a member of the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee as a man, as I find the current gender imbalance in many aspects in science unacceptable. A balanced mix of men and women at all levels of our work should never be a discussion, but unfortunately although we are born the same way, our chances in life as man or woman are not the same. Also there I want to make a difference.

I have recently become Editor-in-Chief of ESMO’s new journal, Immuno-Oncology Technology (IOTECH) and this is an exciting challenge. IOTECH focuses on many of my areas of research interest: adoptive cell therapy, cancer vaccine development, intratumoral immunotherapy, new macromolecules, biomarker research and early trial data. It is my aim to help IOTECH grow to become established as a high-impact platform for the publication of research in this fascinating and fast-moving field.