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Former VUB rector launches foundation for cancer studies

16:02 16/10/2018

Paul De Knop, the former rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), has been talking about his struggle with skin cancer and his efforts to make the latest therapies more widely available. To this end, he has set up a foundation to raise funds for research and further clinical studies.

The discovery in 2015 that De Knop (pictured) had a non-aggressive form of leukaemia cast a shadow over his planned retirement from VUB. But he still had hopes of an active retirement, beginning with an expedition to the Himalayas.

On his return, however, he got a more serious diagnosis of metastatic skin cancer. “Normally with a cancer like this you get six months to a year,” he told De Tijd. “I’m now two years in.”

The treatments that followed worked to a certain extent, but not enough to leave him in the clear. In May this year the cancer had spread again, and he was put on an experimental therapy that uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer.

Helping the body to help itself

“The extra treatments now seem to be doing their job,” he told De Morgen. “It remains to be seen, but I count myself lucky to have got this disease now. Six years ago these techniques did not yet exist, and that would have been it for me.”

Even so, it was not easy. This form of immunotherapy is very expensive, and the hospital where he was treated could not afford the latest equipment.

So De Knop went out and raised some of the necessary funds himself. Now he has set up a foundation that will continue this work.

“The money that we collect will go towards scientific research and clinical studies,” he told De Morgen. “The more people who can be helped with immunotherapy, the better. And what may not work for me, might work for others.”

While sometimes angry about the disease, he also counts his blessings. “I was unlucky. But I have also been very lucky,” he told De Tijd. “I have a wonderful family and was able to work at the university for 42 years, with all those young, intelligent people. Isn’t that a fantastic life to have had?”

Photo: Laurie Dieffembacq/BELGA

Written by Ian Mundell (Flanders Today)