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Drugmakers turn to regenerative medicine for edge

CiRA head Shinya Yamanaka, left, and Takeda chief Christophe Weber shake over a new research partnership.

TOKYO -- Japan's drugmakers are turning their development efforts toward regenerative medicine, forming academic-corporate partnerships for stem cell research and buying up promising ventures abroad to stake out a share of that promising growth market.

     Takeda Pharmaceutical on Tuesday announced it will fund 20 billion yen ($164 million) in joint research with Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, or CiRA. The two have begun using induced pluripotent stem cells to develop drug treatments and other therapies in six areas, including cancer, heart failure and diabetes. The efforts will spur other innovation in Japan, Takeda President Christophe Weber told a news conference.

     Takeda has devoted around 2,000 sq. meters at its Kanagawa Prefecture research center to the collaboration. A combined 60 researchers are at work on the project, which is seen melding Kyoto University's scientific expertise with Takeda's financial muscle.

     The scope of the partnership will grow from six areas to more than 10 when the research space is expanded next spring. The number of researchers will rise to around 100. New therapies are expected to enter the clinical trial phase within five years.

     Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma has taken a similar tack, teaming with a CiRA team headed by professor Jun Takahashi as well as conglomerate Hitachi to develop an iPS cell-based treatment for Parkinson's disease. The therapy will be based on a mass-produced cell line rather than the patient's own cells, making treatment both quicker and less costly.

     Other companies are looking to U.S. enterprise rather than academia to crack the regenerative medicine market. Fujifilm Holdings earlier this year acquired Cellular Dynamics International for around $307 million. The U.S. startup holds a large number of patents related to iPS cells, and is capable of reliably mass-producing them.

     Astellas Pharma, meanwhile, has agreed to acquire U.S. biotech company Ocata Therapeutics for around $379 million. Ocata is developing an embryonic stem cell-based treatment, currently in clinical trials, for age-related macular degeneration.

     The market for regenerative medicine will grow to around 1 trillion yen in 2020, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry predicts. U.S. and European pharma giants are also researching such treatments. But the field is one of a few in which Japan has truly managed to hold its own. Taking the lead in applying iPS cells and other technologies could help companies here compete with their larger international counterparts on a global scale.

(Nikkei)

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