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Medical Delta professor Marco van Vulpen: ‘I advocate the introduction of the share factor’

Proton therapy is a new way of treating cancer in which radiation doses are delivered more precisely. This results in less damage to surrounding tissue and fewer side effects. Professor Marco van Vulpen is medical director of HollandPTC in Delft, where the social value of this therapy is studied. Van Vulpen is a professor at LUMC, Erasmus MC and TU Delft and has now also been appointed as a Medical Delta Professor. ‘Traditionally, you sit in your room and do research. The international standard nowadays is: first set up a network and then do joint research.’

Marco van Vulpen on his research

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HollandPTC is a collaboration of three universities and originates from Medical Delta. ‘As medical director, my job is to get universities and hospitals to work together to make proton therapy possible in the Netherlands,’ Van Vulpen says. ‘To join forces and have an impact for the patient together. The fact that I have now been appointed Medical Delta Professor has not changed the core of my work, but I do find it very special and it is a great acknowledgement.’

Marco van Vulpen

What is being researched at HollandPTC?

‘Research at HollandPTC has two objectives. Our first goal is to determine the social added value of proton therapy. What is the benefit for the patient? Proton therapy is more precise and causes less damage and side effects, but it is also more expensive. We are investigating the added value in order to determine in which situations this treatment is best used. 

Our second goal is innovation in cancer treatment. There is much room for improvement of current techniques and we are using proton therapy as a model for this. For example, we are looking at imaging equipment, new scans and models, and adding immunotherapy, for example. HollandPTC is the place where all forces are combined. One of the researchers working on innovation is Medical Delta Professor Mischa Hoogeman. He ensures that what we produce here can also be applied in the clinic.

Proton therapy consists largely of technology. The patient only sees a small part of it. Behind the scenes, a lot is happening. Particle accelerator, imaging, model calculations. The fact that we are located on the TU Delft campus is a major advantage for access to new technology. Where Medical Delta aims to stimulate cooperation, Holland PTC is the materialisation of this.’

How can Medical Delta further promote collaboration?

‘My experience is that everyone wants to work together. But in practice, it is sometimes difficult. In the current set-up, there are separate hospitals with all sorts of barriers between them that complicate the collaboration. Think, for example, of strict regulations regarding privacy. As a doctor, it is not easy to find your way. My wish is that Medical Delta will succeed in overcoming these barriers, which are formed by legislation and company structures.  

I also notice that researchers are currently judged mainly on the basis of individual performance. How many publications do you have, how much money do you bring in? An example of this is the Hirsch index, or the 'H factor'. Cooperation does not fit into this assessment. If you want to promote collaboration, it will also have to be included in the individual assessment. I therefore argue for the introduction of the S-factor, the share index. I talked about this during my inaugural lecture at the Medical Delta Conference and received positive reactions from many directors and deans afterwards.’

What advice do you have for successful collaboration?

‘Collaboration means a lot of talking. It does not come naturally and you are the driving force. Bear in mind that you will have to go through a lot of frustrations in the beginning. But know that there is a large network, such as Medical Delta, that can help you. But you have to go look for it yourself and there is no button that you can press for it to happen automatically. Traditionally, you sit in your room and do research. The international standard now is to first set up a network and then do research together.’

Which other researcher have you been surprised by?

‘There are many scientists who have surprised me and there are more to come. One name that immediately comes to my mind is Dr Jos Elbers. He is a radiotherapist at Erasmus MC. He manages to bring together many people and many difficult subjects and that is highly appreciated within Medical Delta. He is working on a large patient study, new interventions, and technical innovations, and uses proton therapy as a model for his research.’

This article is part of a series in which we highlight the nine new Medical Delta professors. Read the other portraits that have been published so far. Marco van Vulpen's research contributes to the HollandPTC Medical Delta scientific programme on HTA value proposition.

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