What is the biggest threat that people in Japan face today? Granted that natural disasters and economic crises are external threats, the biggest internal threat is cancer, a disease that devours its victims from the inside of the body. According to its "projected cancer statistics for 2016", the National Cancer Center estimated that 1,010,200 citizens would contract cancer and 374,000 would die from the disease in 2016.
This increased incidence of cancer not only means more suffering for patients and their families but also strongly relates to challenges facing Japanese society such as ballooning healthcare costs and the decline in labor force. Early detection with proper care can provide relief to cancer patients and their families help bring down the high cost of treatment, and reduce the burden on the nation’s finances. Additionally, if the cancer mortality rate can be lowered, Japan will be able to halt the downtrend in its working population. Curbing cancer rates and mortality rate is one of the top prioritized challenges in the country.
The Sumitomo Corporation Group has taken steps to address this challenge through its support for efforts in the fields of drug manufacturing and drug discovery. Specifically, we provide Japanese drug manufacturers, research institutes, and universities with supplies of the synthetic chemicals that serve as raw materials in drug manufacturing processes, research equipment used in the development of new drugs, and import or in-license intellectual property in the form of drug licenses from abroad. This is one of the models the Sumitomo Corporation Group has implemented for its pharmaceutical business.
"Summit Pharmaceuticals International (SPI) serves as Sumitomo’s front line of support for operations in the arenas of drug manufacturing and drug discovery. Our biggest strength is in our ability to find the best suppliers for raw materials, equipment, technologies, and expertise through our global network and provide our domestic partners with a stable supply under compliance with applicable Japanese laws," says Toshiya Kitamura, a member of the Medical Science Department that manages SPI.
Since joining Sumitomo Corporation in 1990, Toshiya Kitamura has been involved with work in the medical field, currently serving as Planning and Management Team Leader for the Medical Science Department. He gained seven years of experience in Milan, Italy, promoting European sales of commercial licenses owned by SPI’s US-based metabolomics service company. "Developing new drugs is not an easy task. I wouldn’t trade for anything the sense of joy I feel whenever the raw materials we supply to our pharma clients are transformed into new drugs and placed on the world market."
The Sumitomo Corporation Group’s pharmaceutical business covers practically all upstream and downstream stages in the flow of drug development, from basic research and the synthesis of raw materials to clinical trials, new drug applications, product registrations, and sales. This represents an exceptionally rare business model for a general trading company. Sumitomo Corporation also supplies raw materials for the manufacture of generic drugs that can be sold at relatively low prices after patents for the original branded drugs expire.
National healthcare costs in Japan now exceed 40 trillion yen a year, and drug costs alone account for about 10 trillion yen of that total. Hopes have accordingly focused on generics as a cost-cutting measure. In fact, the Japanese government now aims to have generics make up about 80 percent of total drug prescriptions by the year 2018.
Taking this situation into account, Kitamura explains:
"Delivering drugs at more affordable prices means we have to curb the cost of raw materials. Broad-based information-gathering and procurement networks are necessary to purchase lower-cost and high-quality raw materials. On that point, the Sumitomo Corporation Group believes it can contribute not only to lowering medical expenses in Japan but also to the health of people worldwide by utilizing its unique general-trading-company network together with the expertise of SPI, a company that’s specialized in the pharma industry."
Masato Higashikawa (right) and Tetsuya Kawamoto, both employees with the Medical Science Department. Higashikawa joined the company after graduating from graduate school in 2001. He relates that "finding solutions to the problems our customers face and earning their trust are the true pleasures I derive from this job." Kawamoto joined Sumitomo Corporation in 2010. He began working at the Tokyo office in April 2016 after completing two years of training in China. "Sumitomo Corporation is an exceptionally open company. I feel that the horizontal and vertical structures of staff relations are well-matched and help generate a certain synergy."
Exporting quality products and technologies from Japan while importing raw materials and resources from abroad. General trading firms have been acting a crucial role to connect between Japan and the international community through this type of trading business. Although we now live in a world marked by progressive business diversification, this form of trading power is still one of the key strengths that general trading firms command. Moreover, we have seen examples of this power being put to work in the field of cancer diagnostics. Research on cancer screening with urinary biomarkers counts as one such case.
SPI employee Yuuki Yonekawa shares some details on revolutionary research into the idea of screening urinary metabolites to diagnose cancer.
"Certain substances present in the human body can be utilized to determine whether a person has a particular disease. These substances are referred to as "biomarker". For example, blood glucose is a biomarker for diabetes and cholesterol is a biomarker for hyperlipidemia. Up to now, screening for cancer has relied primarily on blood tests and diagnostic imaging. However, if we could identify urinary biomarkers for cancer, that would enable us to more easily obtain test samples and perform screening tests without causing the patient undue physical stress."
Yuuki Yonekawa was involved with bioscience research during his days in graduate school. He joined Summit Pharmaceuticals International in 2011 following a period of employment with a consulting company. "Failure is one of the inevitable sides of research. I want to do as much as I can to help improve the quality of the research environment and achieve higher research success rates. Those are my goals."
SPI has been invited by Hitachi, Ltd. to take part in a program of biomarker research under a collaborative tie-up. This partnership between the two companies took shape on the basis of a proposal that SPI made to Hitachi, which had been engaged in this research for some time.
"Many biobanks have been set up abroad as repositories for the biospecimens used in research. Furthermore, many companies possess an array of unique analytical technologies for the detection of biomarkers in such samples. We have been involved in a continuing effort to familiarize domestic Japanese firms and research institutions with these companies and their technologies, and in the process, realized that we were in a position to make proposals to Hitachi that would fit well with its own research endeavors."
Sharing those comments is Sayuri Koseki, another SPI employee. She adds that Hitachi welcomed the SPI proposal as a virtual godsend. Minoru Sakairi is a Hitachi employee who has been involved for an extended period in the arena of health-care research. He notes: "Had SPI not approached us with their proposal, our research would have suffered further delays. Our biomarker development program has made huge strides thanks to SPI’s perfectly timed sharing of the information we needed."
Sayuri Koseki joined Sumitomo Corporation in 1992 and later became an employee with Summit Pharmaceuticals International. Although her educational background is not with life sciences, she notes that she managed to acquire professional knowledge in the medical field with support from her colleagues. "Medicine is a field that has demonstrated advances on a daily basis. I am constantly excited to have the opportunity to see new technologies up close and be involved in related work."
"This research requires access to urine samples from healthy individuals and patients but it would have taken us a significant amount of time had we tried to gather those samples from medical institutions in Japan. Instead, we were able to purchase and quickly obtain biospecimens as ‘research materials’ from German and US biobanks to which we had been referred by SPI. Additionally, we learned that we could also have access to clinical data from these sources. Furthermore, SPI referred us to various US biotechs that possess exceptionally high-level analytical expertise and databases. This enabled us to make huge strides in our research." (Sakairi)
Utilizing its global network to connect domestic clients with the international community is a strength in which the general trading company excels best. However, the resulting partnerships have moved past that initial linkage to achieve further headway in the arena of research and development.
Currently, Yonekawa and several of his colleagues are working together in this research undertaking as part of the collaborative tie-up between SPI and Hitachi. That arrangement has moved beyond intermediation and referrals, enabling these employees to actively participate in other ventures and projects, through which they can work together to generate new value. They are, in effect, putting Sumitomo Corporation’s deep-rooted "hands-on" culture into practice.
Minoru Sakairi works with Hitachi’s R&D group. "Our collaboration in the research field has awakened me to Sumitomo Corporation’s vast potential. I hope to see this partnership expand further going forward."
The latest accomplishments of this research were reported in June 2016. Specifically, investigators analyzed the metabolites in urine samples from healthy individuals and patients with breast or colon cancer, and succeeded in pinpointing a selection of candidate cancer biomarkers.
If they can enhance the precision of this methodology through continued research and establish it as a viable medical solution, patients will have the option to screen themselves for cancer in the comfort of their own homes, thus improving the chances for early detection. That achievement in turn would help lower the cancer mortality rate and rein in health-care costs. This is the vision that members of the research team share.
"The Hitachi Group is striving to spur changes in Japan’s social structure and, to that end, is pursuing a ‘social innovation’ business program. Its efforts in the arena of health-care, including research on cancer diagnostics, are an integral element of that business. However, innovations are not something that the Hitachi Group will be able to generate in isolation. They will be realized only if it acts to break out of its traditional culture of self-reliance and strives to forge appropriate partnerships with outside players. That’s how I see things." (Sakairi)
The partnership between Sumitomo Corporation and Hitachi deserves much of the credit for the progress this research has made to date in bringing about innovations in the field of cancer diagnostics.
Modern research on cancer treatments has demonstrated impressive strides. As a Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo and Director-General of the Innovation Center of Nano Medicine (ICONM), Kazunori Kataoka is one of the top investigators on the cutting edge of this field. Dr. Kataoka is renowned for his research on nano-machines, a revolutionary medical technology that allows the pinpoint targeting and elimination of cancer cells with anti-cancer agents delivered intravenously. The risk of adverse side-effects from this approach is extremely low because the anti-cancer agents do not attack normal cells. Additionally, metastasis can be detected at an early stage and relapses prevented by allowing the nano-machine drug delivery system to stay within the patient’s body. Hearing that, anyone would likely be impressed with just how revolutionary this technology is.
Dr. Kataoka elaborates: "If we succeed in fully perfecting applications of this nano-machine technology, we will be able to look forward to a decline in cancer mortality rates. Not only that, but it will be possible for cancer patients to continue with their livelihoods because they will experience remission without the need for long-term hospitalization or extra measures to deal with the adverse effects of conventional therapies. In effect, cancer will become just another ‘ordinary disease."
Kazunori Kataoka is one of the top investigators in the field of cancer diagnostics and therapeutic research. "Reining in health-care costs is not the only challenge Japan faces. We also have to boost health-care quality while holding those costs down. I think these challenges will test Japan’s potential in the arenas of technology and research. I am hopeful that the Sumitomo Corporation Group will continue to put solid support behind the advancement of medical research and technology."
Research on this technology demands that investigators monitor the movement of cancer cells within the bodies of laboratory animals. The light imaging equipment that allows this external monitoring of cells without invasive surgical procedures on the test subjects was actually supplied by SPI.
Says Dr. Kataoka: "The information-gathering and procurement power of general trading houses will become ever more important to undertakings in medical research.
"General trading firms procure the equipment, specimens, and technologies that we require for our research from suppliers worldwide and reliably provide those resources to us on a steady basis. They listen to us and find solutions that are well-suited to meeting our needs. General trading firms are probably the only industrial players that possess these capabilities. I want to see the Sumitomo Corporation Group fill a role as our ‘research concierge,’ so to speak."
Fueling advances in medical technology and finding solutions to varied medical challenges are missions for research institutions and medical practitioners. Providing background support and facilitating progress in the medical field are roles that general trading houses should serve. The power to deliver these forms of support will help Japan resolve the national-scale challenges of ballooning health-care costs and population decline.
Sumitomo Corporation Group employees have continued working behind the scenes to be an asset to medical practitioners, patients currently battling an affliction, and everyone else that faces the risk of contracting a disease at some point in the future.