It is thumbs up for cell therapy in Japan



It was recently reported that three large Japanese pharmaceutical companies, Fujifilm, Takeda Pharmaceutical, and Astellas, have struck significant deals in the field of cell therapy as they seek a competitive advantage in this emerging area of pharmaceuticals. The Japanese government and corporations are betting big that cell therapy will be the answer to a number of tough challenges, such as a rapidly aging population, a concern regarding the availability of blood, and the need for innovative products that will carry pharma companies beyond 2020 and 2030.

Is this the “right bet” for Japanese companies to make?

Fujifilm, best known for medical imaging and diagnostics equipment, cosmetics, optical films devices, photocopiers and printers, eagerly hopes to continue as an innovator by partnering with Japan’s number one pharma company, Takeda, to develop regenerative medical treatments for heart failure. The companies will work together to innovate within the market by examining the possibilities of heart muscle cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which are not specific to an individual. The partnership will combine Fujifilm’s growth expertise with manufacturing iPSCs with Takeda’s track record of securing regulatory approval for new treatments. Takeda often blazes the trail for much of the Japanese pharmaceutical industry.

Another giant of Japan’s pharmaceutical industry, Astellas, will pay around $102 million up front to acquire a partner corporation, US West Coast Company Universal Cell. The companies started working together to develop an undisclosed single treatment. Universal Cell will bring to Astellas the “how to” related to the manipulation of the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system, which is responsible for the regulation of the immune system in humans.

We have spoken to a number of executives, and their responses were quite positive. Many believe that this is indeed the right direction for Japanese pharma in order to continue to grow into the future. The general thought is that a breakthrough in regenerative medicine will be positive. Our sense is that people are confident that IPS technology as well as Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) used for the immunotherapy of certain types of hematological conditions will be the way of the future.

While the majority of people we spoke to were positive, some were skeptical. One executive described the actions of some of these companies as “greedy.” This executive believed that they were rushing to partner with Takeda because of its clout and its ability to move the needle with clinical trials as well as their close association and investment in the work of Professor Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher. One Research and Development Vice President of a U.S. bio-pharmaceutical company said bluntly, “I do not think these technologies will see the light of day within the next ten years.”

It is agreed that this is a long-term strategy and that the cost of development and the cost for the patients will be “crazy expensive”, said a leading Pharmaceutical Medical Doctor. One leading doctor working for a U.S. pharma company painted an even darker picture, “I do not think that this will become big business since cell therapy has an extremely narrow focus, and the costs will be enormous.”

Investing in science for the benefit of patients is at the core of the pharmaceutical industry,  and the seeds of success for companies, like Roche, were planted 30 years ago in technologies, such as monoclonal antibodies, which many considered risky at the time. The big winners over the next few decades will be those companies that are tilling and planting the seeds of development and innovation now.

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