Leading the fight against cancer

With the population aging in the West and Japan, and cancer rates growing, pharmaceutical companies involved in oncology, such as Japanese firm Astellas, have been tasked with an unprecedented challenge to develop new and innovative treatments for patients

Japan is one of the first countries to deal with the health and economic challenges brought about by a rapidly aging population. But the U.S. and Europe will also face this grave challenge over the coming decades. Currently, the number of people over 65 years of age constitutes 26 percent of the total population in Japan, and that figure is expected to reach 40 percent by 2050.

The changing demographics are putting the healthcare industry and pharmaceutical companies under immense pressure to provide high-quality, high-value patient care, as incidents of diseases such as cancer and heart disease will continue to rise. Leading the charge is one of Japan’s leading pharmaceutical firms, Astellas. The company’s global presence spans more than 50 countries, including the U.S., where it recently acquired Boston-based Ocata Therapeutics. It also recently acquired Belgium-based Ogeda SA.

“Clearly Japan is one of the first countries facing an aging population. This is a very challenging topic because this is not only Japan’s issue, all over the world stakeholders across the healthcare industry are facing the difficult task of keeping effective and sustainable healthcare at low costs,” says Astellas president and CEO, Yoshihiko Hatanaka.

“In Japan, the government has already begun a community healthcare initiative to help provide effective and efficient healthcare. We, the pharmaceutical companies, until now have largely focused on the ‘cure’ part, but now we must also consider the ‘care’ part. Secondly, there is a major focus on early intervention in order to manage patient journeys in a cost-effective manner.”

Innovation will be key to address this challenge. According to Mr. Hatanaka, one of the major innovations is “personalized medicine”, which is closely related to patient selection by utilizing biomarker and companion diagnostics. Most of the pharmaceutical companies’ products at the moment, he explains, are developed with companion diagnostics, which allows them to select the most beneficial solutions for the patient.

Astellas president and CEO, Yoshihiko Hatanaka

Astellas president and CEO, Yoshihiko Hatanaka

“Our next step is to figure out how to provide access to our innovation and medicine all over the world. I believe this is our challenge. My hope is that when we develop an innovative product, whether we develop it in the U.S. or Japan, we would like to provide those benefits to each patient around the world,” he adds.

Astellas was established in 2005, following the merger of long-established Japanese pharmaceutical firms, Yamanouchi and Fujisawa. The merger of these two companies gave Astellas, which decided to make oncology its core research area, the resources to set about on achieving its goal to develop treatments for cancer patients around the globe. The company estimated that it would need to invest $1 billion at the time to better contribute to serving the needs of patients and become more competitive in the industry.

In 2007, Astellas made its first acquisition when it bought California-based Agensys which specializes in developing novel antibodies to treat cancers, and in 2009, Astellas reached development and commercial agreements with Medivation (late acquired by Pfizer) for enzalutamide, a cancer product. Another U.S. acquisition was made in 2010, with the purchase of OSI Pharmaceuticals in New York. It also recently acquired German firm Ganymed, which specializes in late-stage oncology research.

“These are our greatest achievements for cancer patients since Astellas’ establishment, and currently oncology remains a key focus area for research,” says Mr. Hatanaka.

“In addition to that, we focus on other research areas. Our key fields at this time are oncology, immunology, urology, nephrology and neuroscience. In addition to those, we have identified two new emerging therapeutic areas, which are muscle disease and ophthalmology.”

Cancer is one of the largest causes of death worldwide; and the disease will continue to grow evermore prominent as the populations in the West and Japan age. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, one in two people will develop cancer in their lifetime. This sets an unprecedented challenge for companies involved in oncology such as Astellas.

“We understand that there has been a lot of research and advancement done in the oncology area. Nevertheless, there are still many unmet medical needs that have not been covered. From this, we can clearly see that there is still great room for growth, allowing for further development and exploration,” explains Mr. Hatanaka.

“Let me also highlight that first and foremost, we are working on a cure, however through the course of R&D and as I mentioned earlier, we will also focus on care as well.”

Jonathan Meaney

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