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Nobel laureate Yamanaka allies with Takeda in hunt for blockbuster drugs



When Christophe Weber went after his first deal as head of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., he veered off the well-worn path to the U.S. and Europe and went to Japan’s Kyoto University instead.

Earlier this year, Weber and Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, based at Kyoto University, agreed on a 10-year partnership to develop therapies for conditions such as heart failure and diabetes. The ¥20 billion ($160 million) accord, announced less than three weeks after Weber became chief executive officer in April, was the biggest between a university and a pharmaceutical company in Japan.

“Takeda isn’t even among the 10 largest drugmakers in the world,” said Seigo Izumo, the company’s head of scientific affairs for Japan, said in an interview. “We know we can’t be a global leader following others. We want this to be a groundbreaking tie-up that will help us step up and be a global leader.”

While Japan’s innovations helped make Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp. global behemoths, even the biggest of the nation’s drugmakers have struggled to deliver the fruits of the country’s cutting-edge science to the world — typically asking rivals to help sell their products overseas. That has meant forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in sales on drugs from the antidepressant Abilify to the cholesterol-lowering Crestor.

Weber, a Frenchman who is the first non-Japanese to helm Takeda, is faced with the challenge of reviving the fortunes of the 234-year-old drugmaker, Asia’s largest. The Osaka-based company, which has 1,200 scientists in Japan, has not produced a blockbuster drug that originated from its labs in 16 years. Profit hit a 15-year low in the year to March 2014, hurt by generic competition for Actos, once the world’s best-selling diabetes medicine.

Weber’s mission fits in with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to encourage external partnerships to boost innovation. Abe wants science to be a key contributor of his economic revitalization strategy and the government has estimated regenerative therapies may generate ¥38 trillion globally by 2050. In 2013, Japan passed bills to fast-track regulatory approval for cell-based products and set new research guidelines, making the nation one of the easiest places to conduct stem-cell research.

The government also committed to fund more than ¥100 billion of research over a decade on so-called induced pluripotent stem cells — the type generated directly from adult cells that was the focus of Yamanaka’s research. In 2012, he won Japan’s first Nobel Prize for medicine in 25 years for showing that mature cells could be reprogrammed to develop into all types of cells in the body.

Weber is faced with competitors such as Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co. and Astellas Pharma Inc., which have also sought partnerships with scientists or other ventures.

Last September, when he was Takeda’s chief operating officer, he visited Yamanaka alone in Kyoto to find out how the two groups could jointly research new treatments for cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

The agreement probably happened because Takeda is now headed by a non-Japanese, said Toshio Miyata, an executive director at Health and Global Policy Institute, a think tank in Tokyo.

“Japanese companies have seldom entered partnerships the size of Takeda’s with academia because of their fear of the risks involved,” Miyata said. “But this shows the way of the world.”

The meeting led seven months later to a collaboration headed by Yamanaka. His 50 scientists will be based at Takeda’s Shonan Research Center in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo.

“It’s the largest tie-up I’ve ever been offered by a Japanese drugmaker,” Yamanaka said in an email. “It’s thanks to Weber’s leadership and mutual understanding, along with other Takeda executives, that will forge a new system for developing drugs.”