Rob Melief Rob Melief Rafaël Philippen

“We want to make people better”

In Alumni
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 20 January 2016 15:33

Rob Melief is the medical director of Genzyme Benelux, part of one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world. The Tilburg native was all set to become an internist at the Maastricht academic hospital when he made a relatively abrupt career change. “I’m still a doctor at heart though.”

In 1996 Melief landed a much sought-after position in internal medicine, the logical next step after breezing through his medical degree at Maastricht University. But just a year later, he left for the pharmaceutical company Organon in Oss. “One of my professors in Maastricht understood, another was less than pleased. How could I trade in medicine for pharma, ‘the dark side’? Well, it certainly wasn’t for the money. If that’s what I was after, I should’ve become a medical specialist. No, I felt that I could mean just as much to patients while working in the pharmaceutical industry. And I became more and more convinced of that after a series of meetings with the company. They were looking for enthusiastic doctors who wanted to help develop new drugs, which really appealed to me.”


And so, after almost a decade in Maastricht, Melief moved back to Brabant. It took him a while to settle in again. “I had a fantastic time in Maastricht. At first, my former classmates and friends made fun of me. Maastricht was seen as uncool, and because of Problem-Based Learning the university was associated with oddballs. Sitting around in groups having discussions ... is that how you become a doctor? But that interactive form of education was exactly what I wanted. Not one-way communication in lecture halls, but working with concrete issues and solving problems. Being thrown straight in the deep end to get practical experience. Not long after, Maastricht topped the ranking of medical programmes in the Netherlands and the scepticism died down.”

He also enjoyed student life in the city. “When I started there in 1988, Maastricht was still a student city in the making. We pioneered a lot of things, organised a lot of activities ourselves. In my second year I helped to found the student rugby club De Maraboes, which is still there and doing really well in the league. Once a year, the alumni take on the current students. I haven’t played much lately, but I still enjoy visiting Maastricht, especially its sidewalk cafes. I have fond memories of them – I made good money playing guitar and singing songs.”

This profitable hobby indirectly influenced his choices later in life. “I made enough money to spend a year travelling before I started my residency. I really missed that during my first year on the wards. The job at Organon was very international, with lots of trips abroad and even four years in Mexico. That was a big draw card for me.”


In 2007 he crossed paths with Genzyme, an international biotechnology company focused on finding drugs for rare diseases. “We got talking and I was immediately impressed by their philosophy. A pharmaceutical company with a very concrete, social objective: improving the lives of patients with rare diseases or diseases with poor treatment options, such as certain metabolic diseases or multiple sclerosis. More and more often we’re drawn into discussions about what drugs should cost and how many patients there have to be for a drug to receive funding. Those are important issues, but ultimately political decisions. At Genzyme, we focus on research, funding it with revenue from previously developed drugs. We collaborate with doctors and universities and yes, we’re definitely getting results, but I can’t go into that here. As in, we’re only allowed to pitch our treatments to doctors. And only after we’ve published in medical journals, after extensive peer review. I get that. The pharmaceutical industry is under close scrutiny. Unfortunately, we still have a bad reputation. There may be some people in the industry with less than pure motives, but I do know there’s a lot of transparency and supervision. We really are working to make people better.”


As medical director for the Benelux, Melief mainly works with the doctors who train medical specialists. “Rare diseases and multiple sclerosis often go undiagnosed for a long time, making drugs less effective. One of the things we teach specialists is how to recognise symptoms early on so the right treatment can be started as soon as possible. Part of my time goes into meetings and managerial tasks, but fortunately I’m still involved in research and education. So I do get to indirectly contribute to the discovery of new drugs and getting the right treatment to the right patients. Because of that, I still feel like a doctor at heart.”


Rob Melief (1968) studied medicine at Maastricht University from 1988 to 1995. He joined Genzyme in 2007 and currently serves as medical director for the Benelux countries. He is married, has two daughters and lives in Amsterdam.

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