After graduating from medical school, I had an opportunity to work as an intern in Silicon Valley in the US. There, I observed the dynamic ways that bioventures took the latest research findings and promptly brought them to market as viable products.
After my internship, I returned to Japan to work as a clinical doctor at Kyushu University. One of my patients with age-related macular degeneration had been suffering from worsening sight due to changes in the macula, which is the most sensitive part of the retina.
As was the case then, there is still no fundamental cure for this disease. One day, this patient asked me: “Doctor, will my eyes get better? I’d like to be able to see my grandchild, who was born five years ago.” When I heard this earnest wish, I acutely felt my own powerlessness. It was then that I vowed to develop effective treatments and universally deliver them to patients, and this vow became my prime motivation for establishing Healios.
Aqumen Biopharmaceuticals (now Aqumen KK) was my first foray into starting a company, so everything was new to me. Nonetheless, we were able to develop BBG250 (Brilliant Blue G-250), a surgical dye used to stain membranes in the back of the eye. After receiving EU approval, we brought the product to market, where it is now a de facto standard. BBG is supported by 63.1 percent of ophthalmologists worldwide (excluding those in the US) according to a survey by the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.
However, unexpected drastic developments in the economic environment required changes in the company; at one point we had no choice but to severely downscale to a minimal number of personnel. We also had countless worries on the financial side. Thanks to the unfaltering support of our stakeholders, we were able to achieve results. This support allowed us to move forward while remaining true to our mission of developing effective treatments and delivering them to patients.
Establishing and running Aqumen taught me many things. Yet I still haven’t fulfilled my vow of delivering a comprehensive treatment for age-related macular degeneration. Meeting one of RIKEN´s top researchers (who became the first person to perform an in-human clinical study with iPS cell technology in the retina) has shown me the path toward the realization of that vow. As the head of Healios, I hope to accomplish our original purpose by coordinating and cooperating with various businesses and research institutes to create mechanisms that smoothly channel Japan’s superb technological abilities into output of iPSC regenerative medicine products. Currently, we are using these mechanisms to move toward the realization of such products for effective treatment of age-related macular degeneration and other retinal degenerative diseases.
It is expected that iPSC regenerative medicine products will first be used for retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) treatments. Healios will continue to gain know-how for safe and efficient cell-culturing technologies and pharmaceutical manufacturing, and acquire broad knowledge of transplantation therapy. We plan to make significant use of these skills in other fields. We have, in fact, begun joint research with Yokohama City University on a platform technology to induce organ bud* growth in fields other than ophthalmology.
The introduction of a new law targeting developments in regenerative medicine (the New Regenerative Medicine Law) represents a historic deregulation of Japan’s drug approval system, and is a global first. Based on the efforts of many researchers over numerous years and the iPS cells developed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka (for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology), we would like to turn Healios into a major iPSC regenerative medicine product company. As a business owner, I would like to use the experience gained by overcoming a difficult period and channel it into cooperation with businesses, universities and research institutes to achieve my goal of delivering treatments to the patients who need them; at the same time, I would also like to pour all my energy into making safe and effective treatment methods using iPSC regenerative medicine products a reality.