|Meet Our Expert is our newest interview series where you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In these interviews, we discuss about the common challenges our customers face in genetic research and how we strive to support them to the best of our abilities. Besides, we also touch upon life, job responsibilities, career developments, corporate culture, vision and mission, etc. In this interview, Harma recounts how a chapter in a biology textbook led her to embark on a scientific journey, retraces her professional career, talks about Cergentis' biggest oncology-related milestones, highlights the promising FFPE-TLC results recently published in Nature Communications, elaborates on our future commercialization plans, and paints a picture of the work environment at Cergentis.|
Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Harma Feitsma and I’ve been working as the Head of Business Development Oncology at Cergentis for three years now. Before that, I worked at Philips Research for nearly ten years as a researcher and project lead, at the Molecular Diagnostics group. For my education, I did a PhD in genomics at the Hubrecht Institute, here in Utrecht, and a Master’s in Biotechnology at Wageningen University. So that’s my professional background. On the personal side, we have two kids. The oldest one is nearly six years old and the youngest just turned four, so he started school now!
How did your interest in science begin?
My parents were both high school teachers. My father was a chemistry teacher and my mother a biology teacher. So, I’m a little bit in between in terms of my professional background [laughs]. Actually, the subjects that I liked most in high school were physics and chemistry. Biology, not so much. Except for this one chapter in the [biology] book we had about DNA. Which I really really liked! So that was really the motivation. The way DNA was described in the book, all the discoveries and how those happened, all those stories made me enthusiastic about biology! That’s why, after high school, I decided to study biotechnology.
Since you performed your PhD at Hubrecht Institute and because TLA is based on 4C, were you already familiar with Professor dr. Wouter de Laat’s work back then?
In my last [PhD] year, Wouter was transferring his group to the Hubrecht Institute, from Erasmus MC. I met him maybe once but we hadn’t been working so much together back then. However, the group I worked in [of Prof. dr. Edwin Cuppen] was highly involved in genomics and that was similar for Wouter’s group.
Has it always been a personal ambition to bring your academic experience to the commercial world?
That desire mainly came during my PhD studies. I liked doing research but at the end of my PhD, I wasn’t completely sure anymore what path to follow. So, I decided to explore both trying to do a postdoc and working in a company. Then, this job at Philips came on my path. I really liked the business environment from the start. That’s because it involves research but then, companies also try to bring that additional step, to translate it into an actual product. And that’s what I like most indeed.
Could you tell us more about your work at Philips? Were your responsibilities mainly geared towards NGS technologies?
For some projects, yes. Actually, I did several projects there. When I started as a researcher, we worked on a NGS project. The group I worked in was really multidisciplinary. So, we had biologists and clinicians, but also physicists and people that could actually build instruments. Something that Philips is well-known for of course. I also worked on a project for fast detection of virus infections with a small instrument, for which we also built a prototype. But at the time, it seemed that there wasn’t really a market for fast virus detection [laughs]. So that project unfortunately stopped. But yes, I did several types of projects for several types of diseases, but mostly indeed for oncology genomics.
How did you become aware of Cergentis and what made you decide to apply and join the team?
I met Max van Min (co-founder of Cergentis), even before he founded Cergentis. At the time, he was working as a consultant at a small microarray company in Leiden. We did a joint research project between Philips and this company. We stayed in touch afterwards and he would sometimes inform me about Cergentis. At a certain point in my career, I was looking for a new adventure in a different environment. I then talked to Max again because there were some vacancies available. Eventually, I was hired and I then joined Cergentis.
Back then, what attracted you to Cergentis?
Again, part of the reasons I joined was because I was looking for a new work environment. Big companies are often very well organized. But sometimes, they can also be a bit “over-organized”. Things always have to fit in processes and the aspects that you can organize and take responsibility for are sometimes limited. Versus a small company, where you have to organize much more yourself, but that also means that you can be involved in planning and strategy. That was something I was really enthusiastic about. And what I am mostly interested in, is how genes are involved in cancer. That was exactly what our TLA technology could be used for, but this was still in development. I found it very interesting to work on that and to try to bring the technology to an oncology product.
Can you describe how Cergentis evolved over the last three years?
When I started, we had just received a European (Commission) Horizon 2020 SME grant, for the development of a TLA protocol for oncology. The very nice thing here, is that the technology is based on crosslinking and DNA fragmentation. And that is exactly what has already happened in the standard fixation procedure of tumor biopsies, so-called FFPE samples. Other technologies have quite some difficulties with analyzing these samples on a DNA level. Our technology is very well suited and has unique properties to analyze these types of materials. But lots of development still had to be done to make a really solid protocol that could lead to good results. Results that would be good enough for oncology diagnostics. Because of course, the requirements are pretty strict. So, when I started, my role was to setup clinical collaborations with hospitals. Basically, just to get access to samples on which we could test to further develop the protocol. That went quite well. Then, we started to work on larger studies. We did this great study in lymphoma with experts of 5 Dutch hospitals and researchers from the Hubrecht Institute. They were all very enthusiastic about the results that we could generate. That led to the publication in Nature Communications in June 2021.
Next to this, Cergentis also has a service business in Genetic Engineering, as quality control, which is running very well. For a small company like ours, it is challenging to , besides that, bring products to the oncology diagnostics market. This is why we are now actively seeking partners to bring this further and closer to patients. On this same note, our CEO Joris Schuurmans has recently been interviewed by GenomeWeb about this topic, where he shared the next steps and strategy for our oncology application. Indeed, we see that this technology has something unique to offer that others can't. So, we really want to make this available to patients worldwide!
Can you elaborate on how our FFPE-TLC compares to standard approaches?
What we clearly see in our results is that our technology generates much more information. For example, in lymphoma, we look at gene fusions. Since we use the proximity-ligation of TLA, we see so much more robust detection of those gene fusions: it’s always very clear whether there is one or not. Currently, the gold standard in lymphoma diagnostics is FISH, as current NGS approaches lack quality. But FISH can still be a subjective technology, for which the results are not always clear. So, pathologists have to decide for themselves whether what they are looking at is actually a translocation or not. With our technology that is super clear and within the collaboration we also made very good analysis software which can be fully automated. This then makes it very easy to use for diagnostics purposes.
What type of partners is Cergentis then looking for?
Our unique added value is really the front part of the workflow. So, the proximity-ligation that enables this very robust detection of gene fusions. The rest of the workflow is basically a targeted NGS approach. Therefore, we try to work with companies that already offer capture or amplification panels, specifically for oncology diagnostics. Our technology would then be an add-on and can very well be combined with these workflows. So, if we could work with them and integrate our unique part with their strong capabilities, this combination could really turn into a great product.
Besides your duties as Head of BD of Oncology, what do you like to do during your spare time?
I think my number one hobby is probably music. I play the violin. And I do that normally in orchestras with lots of friends. This is something I really miss now with COVID, because those large group gatherings are of course not possible under the COVID restrictions. So, I really hope that this can soon start again! Especially now with the vaccinations speeding up.
I also like sports very much. Both doing and watching sports. I have certainly been watching football during the European championship. It’s going to be a great summer also with the Olympics!
At the moment, myself I’m mostly running and cycling because that is easy to plan, especially with my two young kids and the family obligations.
Finally, could you paint a brief picture of our work culture here at Cergentis?
Yes! From the beginning I really really liked it! It’s a great team and everybody is very open and communicative. Also, everyone is working very well together, taking responsibilities on all levels, and everyone is very social. There are many people at Cergentis with young kids, so whenever you have to stay home because your kid is ill or something, that’s well accepted here. Also, we’re organizing many social activities and events at Cergentis, which bring the team further together. That also unfortunately was more challenging with COVID restrictions. But just lately, we had a very nice small get-together. And you could clearly see that it’s still a great team!