Astellas Pharma CEO Q&a (Part 2): We Have To Have Alternatives for Prescription Medicine Business

Here’s part 2 of MedCity News’ Q&A with Astellas Pharma CEO Naoki Okamura who was in South San Francisco last week for the opening of the Japanese pharma company’s West Coast Innovation Center. You can read Part 1 here. Like the earlier article, what follows below has been edited for clarity and length.

MedCity News: What do you think of digital technologies in general? I mean, a few years ago we heard a lot about “beyond the pill,” but digital therapeutics as a category seems to have failed. Where do you see digital technology adding value for your patients and for your company?

Okamura: Yeah, we have a third strategic goal; we call it RX+. So the prescription medicine business may not be as stable in the future as we expect. So we have to have certain alternatives for prescription medicine. That’s number one. And number two, prescription medicine is for treatment and there’s a little bit for prophylaxis like vaccines. But the patient has to go on a much longer patient journey even when they feel they are healthy. You may go to the doctor and he recommends exercise, then you get diagnosed with something and receive treatment.

Even after the treatment, you have to go through certain management of the diseases. So prescription medicine can only contribute to the treatment. But for other parts of the patient journey, we need some innovative healthcare solutions. And we do believe if we can combine our expertise in the prescription medicine business and the technology or the know-how in totally different things, — digital is one of those — if we can combine them, probably we can contribute to a much better patient journey. So that’s the definition of RX+ business accelerator.

We have a digital therapy collaboration with Welldoc. We also acquired a company called Iota. Iota engineers are developing a vanishingly small tip to be implanted in the human body. What we are dreaming of is doing sensing and stimulation with electricity.

MedCity News: Neuromodulation?

Naoki Okamura, CEO of Astellas, dons a traditional Japanese jacket to perform a sake ceremony (all audience members also had sake) to celebrate a company milestone: the opening of a West Coast Innovation Center.

Okamura: Kind of, yes. So it’s a kind of closed loop.

MedCity News: For what kind of disease?

Okamura: So for example, we have strength in urology. We have developed overactive bladder drugs called Vesicare and and Myrbetriq. But there are certain medical conditions where people cannot void. So if you clip that [Iota Sciences’ device] here (points to his hip) and with the electric signal, you can contract the the bladder, helping it to void. [Editor’s Note: Okamura talked about Iota when answering a question about digital technologies and although it is part of the Rx+ effort, Iota Biosciences can be more precisely categorized as a electronic biomedical device company leveraging ultrasound. It’s an example of pharma going beyond drugs to help patients but the technology is certainly therapeutic in nature.]

MedCity News: When you look at digital, another Japanese company – Otsuka – had a failed effort with Proteus Digital Health, which raised a lot of money for its embedded sensor before going bankrupt. What I heard is that the cultures of pharma and digital are so different. And then the product they chose to embed the Proteus sensor into was a schizophrenia drug. People taking that medication are anxious people already and then you’re giving them a pill that is monitoring them continuously. So I don’t know whether they were too ahead of their time or they chose the wrong disease or the product Abillify MyCite was priced too high. But this marriage of pharma and digital has been kind of rocky and unsuccessful.

Okamura: I won’t make any comments about competitors, but I do agree there are differences in the corporate cultures. And even Astellas a decade ago or two decades ago, there was a kind of “not invented here” type of mindset. But because partnership is so important and critical for us and because we kind of shifted our resources to innovation, we realize that innovation cannot happen alone.

If you collaborate or if you acquire — whatever path you take — and if you want to really maximize the value of the collaborator or the acquired company, you have to respect the other side. I am telling people not to Astellasize the acquiring companies. And you don’t just simply push your support to the other side. You just provide the support on demand. When they need our support, of course we help them, but don’t go there saying, ‘This is the Astellas way to do this kind of stuff.’ So we stopped doing that.

I think if you have an opportunity to go to Iota and talk to their people, they feel very comfortable in how we have interacted with Iota for the past three years. The same as some of the other companies that have come to this grand opening. So they feel that Astellas is not really forcing them to do whatever we want them to do. We are real partners.

MedCity News: I have exhausted all my questions. (In an endearing gesture, Okamura reacts by extending both his arms above his head, victorious that the interview is finally over. We laugh). Is there something you want to add?

Okamura: Thank you for coming today. First of all, this is a great milestone for us as we try to become a truly global company. So we are expanding our footprint not only in the U.S. but Europe as well. We have talented people around this area. If there are common interests, they can join Astellas to work together to really, really feel the shared objective and the goal. That’s no. 2. And no. 3, again, we want to become a partner of choice. So we are not simply doing innovation by ourselves. We have to have partners, so we are very open to collaboration.

Featured Photo: Who_I_am, Getty Images

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