Revised May 7, 2009

A Message from the Director

“The Place” for Gene Therapy

Complex historical forces in the 14th and 15th centuries landed the Dutch in the sodden “Low Countries,” a part of Europe where nobody else wanted to live. They faced an immediate problem—what to do with the water? This was an engineering conundrum of such enormous proportions that it required the cooperation of every sector of society. And thus evolved the essential Dutch characteristic that forms the overriding ethos of their culture—cooperation.

We at UAB have benefited substantially from this national virtue. The current issue of Vector features the many cooperations that have arisen between the Gene Therapy Center and scientific groups at institutions throughout the Netherlands.

Russel Shorto’s book The Island at the Center of the World highlights the substantial contributions of the Dutch North American colony to American national character. Indeed, one school of scholarly thought argues that, despite the fact that we speak English, the Netherlands is our legitimate home country. This is certainly true at the Gene Therapy Center, where we share their entrepreneurial ethos and commitment to transform ideas into practice. Through our current cooperations we are developing several novel bench-to-bed gene therapy initiatives that we hope to implement in human trials during the upcoming year.

The exchanges have been bidirectional and mutually beneficial. For example: The Krumdieck tissue slicer that is highlighted in the cover story was invented by a UAB scientist; its utility for gene therapy studies was demonstrated by Birmingham-trained Dutch scientists now on the faculty in Groningen. And data derived from their work was key to helping the UAB Gene Therapy Center capture a critical NIH clinical translation grant. In another instance, a UAB M.D./Ph.D. student developed a novel cancer vaccine vector approach during an exchange rotation in Amsterdam. Studies at the Gene Therapy Center validated the therapeutic potential of this approach, and a human clinical trial embodying this vector paradigm will begin shortly at the Free University. And so it goes.

It’s no coincidence that gene therapy has attracted such interest in the Netherlands. The Dutch have an enviable record of embracing experimental therapeutics and piloting phase I trials of new anticancer agents. This experience is essential for advancing the frontiers of our field. In this context, a recent Gene Therapy Center-Free University virotherapy clinical trial proposal employs a radically altered adenoviral agent. Gene therapy colleagues have quipped that we’d “be crazy” to advance such a novel paradigm in today’s sensitive clinical climate. But a well-known Dutch aphorism recommends, “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough!” So our Dutch-American team proceeded “normally” via the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. As a result we have gained full federal support to carry out this proposal, which will be realized in linked human trials on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Dutch nickname for their capital city of Amsterdam is “Mokum,” deriving from the Yiddish equivalent and signifying “The Center” or “The Place.” While the Gene Therapy Center has been fortunate to operate within an international sphere of collaborations, our relationship with the Netherlands has been unique. Our continued progress in joint projects promises to realize our ultimate aims—new therapies for cancer. We hope that such cooperations will build further strengths at both ends and help the Netherlands evolve as “The Place” for gene therapy in Europe.

David T. Curiel, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, Gene Therapy Center
Director, Division of Human Gene Therapy
Jeanne and Ann Griffin Chair for Women’s Cancer Research