With a scientific background in developmental cell biology, hands-on experience at world class UC Berkeley, initiator of several AMC tumor biobanks, and a deep understanding of Amsterdam UMC’s cancer research community and patient expertise centers, principal investigator Dr. Maarten Bijlsma is perfectly positioned to take on the leading role of Scientific Director at Cancer Center Amsterdam.
Onboarding a New Scientific Director
When the vacancy of the scientific director position was announced among the research community of Amsterdam UMC, Maarten says he was asked if he had any interest in applying.
“There wasn’t a single doubt in my mind,” says Maarten. “Cancer Center Amsterdam and Cancer Center Amsterdam Foundation form an amazing translational research institute. So much has already been achieved, before and after the merger of Amsterdam’s academic hospitals. My predecessor, Jan Paul Medema, the Executive Board, and all our researchers and staff members have created such a strong organization. I feel humbled, privileged, and super-motivated to lead our joint research efforts to create better outlooks for patients with cancer.”
Quality versus Quantity
Through the merger of AMC and VUmc into Amsterdam UMC, Cancer Center Amsterdam has become one of the largest cancer centers in the Netherlands. According to Maarten, the sheer size places Cancer Center Amsterdam on par with the best cancer research institutes in the world.
“In my view, we need to benefit more from our combined talents and focus on producing high quality research. Right now, the output of researchers at Cancer Center Amsterdam as measured in scientific papers is very impressive. But wouldn’t our societal impact be greater if we publish less often, and the research we do produce qualifies for high impact journals like Cell, Nature, and Science?
“This will require a slightly different approach, I think. PhD students should not feel pressured to publish a strictly defined number of first author papers to graduate. Instead, it would be preferable if they could focus completely on finding answers to present-day challenges in oncology through in depth and comprehensive research. In addition, we need to center our always limited resources around ‘what do we do best’, in line with our patient expertise centers.
“Together, we need to show courage to embark on a somewhat more ‘high risk – high gain’ approach to our investigations, and emphasize valorization of our insights to make progress in our programs like cancer biomarkers and precision drug targets. That way, we can bring better cancer therapies to patients faster.”
Challenges in Outreach and Branding
The time that Cancer Center Amsterdam was mainly known as the red and blue container building on the Zuid-As are long gone. Maarten: “Nurses, clinicians, and researchers working in the oncology domain at all Amsterdam UMC locations should know these days that they are Cancer Center Amsterdam, even though their pay slips may not show this. Jan Paul has worked hard to raise this awareness. Our annual retreat has also been a great tool to establish a sense of unity among former AMC/UvA, VUmc/VU - now Amsterdam UMC - and even scientists at Sanquin with a focus on oncology.”
One challenge facing Cancer Center Amsterdam is outreach, according to Maarten. “We need to gain more visibility and awareness for our state-of-the-art cancer institute. The successful branding hierarchy established during the last few years following the merger and creation of Amsterdam UMC may be somewhat counterproductive for Cancer Center Amsterdam here.”
When researchers at Cancer Center Amsterdam publish groundbreaking new insights in a high impact journal, you have to show that to the world!” Dr. Maarten Bijlsma.
Looking Forward with Courage and Optimism
Maarten emphasizes that the merger has brought strengths to the research institute. “At Cancer Center Amsterdam there are many, many people affiliated with one aim: to create groundbreaking new possibilities for patients with cancer. Look at the incredible cool and important science that is going on in our research labs, the dedication and perseverance in our Clinical Trial Bureau to actually translate research insights into new treatments.
“We are also collaborating regionally and harmonizing efforts to collect tumor, blood, and other samples in vast biobanks. These biobanks, together with AI, will fuel major new discoveries and develop tomorrow’s diagnostic tools and treatments. Also look at our advances in medical imaging, surgery, immunotherapy, and delivery of precise personalized radiotherapy. There is so much potential here - everything we have already established together at Cancer Center Amsterdam. That is why I am looking forward – with courage and optimism – I know that we will succeed in improving cancer care for patients.”
For more information, contact Dr. Maarten Bijlsma.
Maarten Bijlsma’s research team is focused on understanding the cell biology of pancreatic, esophagogastric, and colon cancers. The research is characterized by four main areas:
- Investigation of the role of non-epithelial components, or the stroma, in gastro-intestinal (GI) cancers. This includes exploring how the stroma contributes to tumor aggressiveness, drug resistance, and the development of blood-borne (liquid biopsy) markers for patient stratification.
- Identification of vulnerabilities of mesenchymal cell states in GI cancer tissues. These states are linked to poor clinical outcomes due to their role in tumor progression and resistance to treatment.
- Research into the mechanisms driving transient cell state transitions in cancers, particularly esophageal cancer. This extends to studying metabolic reprogramming related to cellular plasticity in different stages of tissue, from healthy, premalignant, to cancerous.
- Collaborative efforts are underway to develop new methods for identifying and studying cancer stem cells. Understanding these cells is vital for grasping the lethality of GI cancers.
The Bijlsma lab utilizes diverse models including cell culture systems, mouse models, and biobanking in the pursuit of new insights.
Maarten Bijlsma has been instrumental in founding and coordinating the Amsterdam Medical Center's BioPAN/HPB and co-coordinating the esophageal BiOES biobanks and the Amsterdam UMC Liquid Biopsy Center. These initiatives enable extensive analysis of predictive and prognostic markers in large patient cohorts.
The Bijlsma research team aims to bridge the gap between fundamental science and clinical application to improving treatment outcomes in GI cancers.
Short Resume Maarten Bijlsma
Jul 2020 – Present: Associate Professor, Amsterdam UMC (AMC)
Jul 2016 - Dec 2019 Program coordinator Imaging & Biomarkers, Cancer Center Amsterdam
2010 – present Group Leader, Amsterdam UMC, location AMC
2009 – 2010 Post-Doc Developmental Biology, University of California, Berkeley
2003 – 2008 Doctorate in Medicine, University of Amsterdam
1998 – 2002 Master's in Molecular Biology, University of Amsterdam
Text by Henri van de Vrugt, photos by Fred van Diem Photography.
This article was created for Cancer Center Amsterdam.