FORUM: Our Strong Nordic Collaboration is a Solid Platform to Strengthen Health

By Ulla Wewer, the University of Copenhagen; Ivar Gladhaug, the University of Oslo; Ole P. Ottersen, Karolinska Institutet; Risto Renkonen, the University of Helsinki; Eric Renström, Lund University; Engilbert Sigurdsson, the University of Iceland

18 May 2020

Deans[Editor's Note: This NSHG-HG FORUM article is published together with a news brief on the Nordic deans meeting on February 28, 2020, in Copenhagen. The commentary has also been published at Altinget in Denmark and at Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland (Swedish).] 

Recently the deans of health from the universities in the Nordic countries met at the University of Copenhagen with a large number of researchers and interested parties from the political world – ministries, various organisations and foundations – to discuss the status of the development of personalised medicine, and not least HOW the Nordic countries can jointly contribute in the best possible manner to an acceleration of the research and application. The unique meeting showed strong support and willingness to cooperate across our countries and across sectors. Now, the next steps must be taken!

We want to collaborate on new research projects based on unique data and with an ambition to identify subgroups of patients who should be diagnosed and treated differently than today. From an international perspective, we can do this in an exceptional way precisely because the Nordic countries have a common benchmark in our healthcare systems. We will on a large scale combine data from our registers with knowledge from patient records, lifestyle information and, as something new, with genome sequencing and proteome analyses (where researchers, based on a small drop of blood or tissue, can analyse thousands of genes and proteins in one stroke). 

By applying systematic mapping, we can create knowledge that can be used for personalised medicine in everyday life, i.e., diagnostics, treatment proposals, prognosis and prevention targeted at the individual patient. It is all about generating sufficient background knowledge and having solid statistics to be able to understand the individual's specific pathological picture and thus be able to offer the best treatment. In this way, the patient can avoid over-medication and using drugs that do not work, or have unwarranted side effects. With personalised medicine, this risk can be significantly reduced, and such targeted treatment is exactly what we strive to do even better.

In order to optimise the development of personalised medicine, we must review our rules for health data usage once more. We must create better opportunities that allow the secure sharing of data across the Nordic countries. And the good news is that there are both good intentions and positive expectations for it to happen now. But there is a need for a clear alignment of expectations and for political initiatives that promote and do not impede our research collaborations. At the same time, we must at all times ensure that our citizens continue to have great confidence in the research, in the ethics of researchers and in data security. There is an urgent need to create the right framework for this type of collaboration because it is extremely important for the future development of treatment methods. 

A good framework has already been established through the Nordic Council of Ministers and the joint NordForsk organisation which for several years has coordinated the funding of research collaboration across the countries. There are also several good technological initiatives. Now the good intentions must be realised, and we would like to highlight the report: ‘A vision of a Nordic Secure Digital Infrastructure for Health Data: The Nordic Commons’ which has defined the potential of such collaborations.

As deans of health in the Nordic region, we are responsible for training the medical doctors of the future, and we know that data will be one of the important prerequisites to ensure more and better health. We are very focused on supporting the development of personalised medicine and strengthening the Nordic collaboration – and here we have taken the lead to create an extra strong Nordic momentum. We hope to receive the support necessary to succeed.