On a cloudy Wednesday morning in the Tokyo suburb of Tsukuba, Yoshiyuki Sankai points excitedly to a slide of severed spinal cords. They belong to rats, and he’s used cell technology to help reconnect the nerves.
A multi-millionaire whose robot company, Cyberdyne Inc., went public last year, Sankai is researching ways to repair damaged body tissue. The 57-year-old scientist’s vision: to treat patients with spinal injuries by using stem-cell related technology to repair nerve connections and robotic suits that aid movement.
His plans are getting a boost from new policies promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who led a liberalization of approval rules to make Japan one of the world’s quickest places to get a regenerative therapy on the market. Now, Japanese corporations spanning the pharmaceutical and industrial sectors have regenerative medicine on their agenda, and industry groups estimate the domestic market for these therapies could top $25 billion by 2050.
Investors are putting money into research that explores the potential of cells to repair damaged organs and tissues, or reverse degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. While scientists globally have worked for years in this field, treatments have been slow to come to market. But there’s a hope in Japan that without the political red tape, promising therapies will emerge faster and there will be speedier payouts.
“It’s a game changer, and we expect investment to keep pouring in to Japan,” said Sanjeev Kumar, a consultant at market research firm Frost & Sullivan. “After years of struggling with slow returns on investment, regenerative medicine companies across the world see a faster path in Japan, and they’re watching closely.”
Regenerative medicine is a broad umbrella that includes treatments around stem cells and gene therapy that are intended to restore the function of damaged organs and tissues.
Sankai’s company Cyberdyne is setting its sights on better treating spinal injury patients by combining multiple approaches. It makes robot exoskeletons for physical therapy, and these bionic suits can read bio-electric signals from the patient’s muscles, helping movement in the disabled. Inspired by Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” as a child, Sankai says his years of mapping out the brain’s nerve network for his robots fits with the research into repairing rat spines with stem cells and proteins. His hope is to eventually use various treatments together. Cyberdyne posted revenue of 631 million yen ($5.2 million) and a loss of 915 million yen in the year ended March 31, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Japan’s Healios K.K. is developing a treatment for an eye disease called macular degeneration that causes vision loss. Electronics giant Hitachi Ltd. announced a joint research project in cell therapy for Parkinson’s Disease in July; while Australian developer of stem cell therapies Mesoblast Ltd. is looking at more partnership deals in Japan after the regulatory changes, its Chief Executive Officer Silviu Itescu said.
Fujifilm Holdings Corp. this year spent $278 million on a company developing stem-cell products for drug testing. It supplies derived human cells to pharmaceutical companies doing trials on new drugs, providing them with an alternative to conducting tests on animals.
Faced with an aging population, Abe is seeking to foster technologies that could create new treatments for patients while potentially providing a boost to Japan Inc. The idea is to have new industries wean the world’s third-biggest economy away from its dependence on autos.