By Bernhardt Zeiher, M.D., F.C.C.P., F.A.C.P.

President of Development, Astellas Pharma Inc


Astellas, like many of our industry peers, prioritizes innovation. What sets Astellas apart, however, is how we function at the intersection where our “Science First” approach meets the flexibility we’ve built into our innovation infrastructure.

“Science First” means we focus on the best science, empower the best talent to pursue it and develop it at the best location. That drives everything we do, and it always will. But as the environment in which we operate becomes ever-more challenging, big pharma’s traditional way of bringing innovation to life must change.

The factors that are creating headwinds for big pharma R&D productivity – global pharma downsizing, increasing development costs and time to market, generics covering more diseases and payers applying more pressure – are opening more doors for others to step in. In fact, over the past decade, 43 percent of new drugs approved were delivered by small pharma and biotechs, while 61 percent were discovered by these organizations as well as by university collaborations.

So, doing what we’ve been doing – even if it was successful in the past – is no longer an option. At Astellas, we want to continue to contribute significantly to the health and well-being of people around the world. To do that, we’ve embraced a new model that not only encourages innovation, but accelerates it.  

Our model revolves around a case-by-case course of action that crosses collaboration, partnership, licensing, acquisition and outcubation – this last a new kind of collaboration in which progress is largely driven by the creativity and scientific expertise of the external partner. Altogether, this gives us a set of options with the flexibility we need to truly fulfill our “Science First” approach. It also allows us to connect with all the touchpoints of the innovation community – biotechs, academic incubators, public-private partnerships and any other players that contribute to the innovation ecosystem we believe can help us develop new and better treatments.   

This new model is already showing promising results.

For example, our partnership and subsequent acquisition of Ocata Therapeutics to develop advanced stem cell technology resulted in the establishment in 2016 of the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine (AIRM). Today it serves as our global hub for regenerative medicine and cell therapy research in ophthalmology and other therapeutic areas with few or no treatment options.

And, just two months ago, in November 2017, we acquired Mitobridge as the next step in a partnership that began in 2013 to focus on discovering and developing novel drugs that target mitochondrial function. Our partnership has placed us at the forefront of mitochondrial directed-therapy development, a potentially breakthrough and entirely new modality for treating disease. MA-0211, the most advanced program emerging from the collaboration to date, is currently in Phase 1 clinical studies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

In both these cases – Ocata and Mitobridge – our flexible model allowed us to move from partnership to acquisition on a timeline best for both organizations and at a point at which further progress required a new relationship between us.

Forging partnerships with universities earlier than ever before is becoming increasingly crucial to drug discovery and development. This not only is because many universities are doing extraordinary work, but because some of today’s most cutting-edge biotech startups originated in university research labs. Over the past decade alone, in fact, Oxford University has been responsible for 40 biotech “spinout” companies.

Our collaboration with Kyoto University touches both academia and private-public partnerships, with funding from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to bring about innovation earlier in the discovery pipeline. This collaboration took a great leap forward in June 2017, when Astellas and the university launched Alliance Station to further accelerate drug discovery research through our joint open innovation system, where the university’s clinical and basic research and Astellas’ drug discovery research are closely linked to drive faster results.

With greater pressure than ever before to innovate at a faster pace, it’s become clear that the best path to innovation is not through past models of success but by embracing new ones, with a customized approach across the entire innovation ecosystem. Our strengths are ours alone. But when we combine them strategically with the expertise, ingenuity and determination of others united behind a common goal, we will fuel innovation and bring value and hope to patients everywhere.

Astellas is a top 20 global pharmaceutical company dedicated to improving the health of people around the world through the provision of innovative and reliable pharmaceutical products. We are committed to turning innovative science into medical solutions that bring value and hope to patients and their families. For more information, please visit our website at www.astellas.com.

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