With the mapping of the human genome opening the door to new possibilities for curing diseases and developing medicine, many Japanese companies are running to catch the bandwagon for the emerging biotech business.

Researchers set glass sheets in a machine to produce DNA chips by positioning gene patterns on them.

In April, Dragon Genomics Co. launched what is touted as Asia’s largest private genome analysis center in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture.

Equipped with supercomputers and cutting-edge machines to decode DNA sequences, the company claims that the center’s capability matches Celera Genomics Corp. of the U.S.

The upstart biotech firm based in Rockville, Md., surprised scientists around the world by overtaking the Human Genome Project, an international public consortium set up in 1988, in deciphering the human genome.

In June 2000, researchers from the two teams jointly announced the completion of the basic map of the human genome.

The achievement is touted as a milestone, paving the way for revealing the secrets of major illnesses such as cancer, heart diseases and Alzheimer’s disease as well as in developing innovative medical treatments.

One human genome is comprised of a sequence of DNA, which contains 30,000 to 40,000 genes, thereby carrying the complete set of instructions for making the proteins that perform all life functions.

Decoding the blueprint of a human has opened up the possibility of developing and providing tailor-made medicine for specific ailments, offering genetic therapy and even controlling aging processes.

Part of such postgenome medical treatments are expected to spread in a decade or two from now, according to experts. The genomic technological development is also expected to help give birth to new agricultural produce and other innovative products, for instance, in environment-related industries.

Dragon Genomics, set up in July 2000 as a wholly owned biotech subsidiary of Kyoto-based sake brewer Takara Shuzo Co., is among the most aggressive in Japan trying to quickly cash in on those emerging possibilities.

Masayuki Nakao, manager of Takara’s public relations department, said Dragon Genomics is capable of conducting speedy genome analysis for its clients at low cost by outsourcing some procedures to Takara’s Chinese subsidiary. The company is also proceeding on research for its own sake, analyzing various genomes, including those of Asian people, marine plants and mushrooms.

“If we can patent genetic discoveries through our own projects, that will bring us profits in the future,” Nakao said. Dragon plans to earn 2.2 billion yen in overall sales this year and 10 billion yen in 2003, he added.

At the moment, however, Japan lags behind the U.S. and Europe in biotechnology.

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan’s biotech-related market was estimated at 1.2 trillion yen in 1999, compared to 7.4 trillion yen in the U.S. and 6.5 trillion yen in Europe.

Government officials, however, are not too concerned.

Starting in 1997, Japan has been promoting national projects on advanced genome-related research and has taken various measures to nurture biotech businesses.

Government expenditures on policies and projects in the biotech field have risen to 284.9 billion yen in the current fiscal year, compared to 170.1 billion yen in 1997.

“If our programs (to boost biotechnology) are carried out successfully, the nation’s biotech market will expand to a maximum of 25 trillion yen by 2010,” said Yoshiaki Tsukamoto, director of the ministry’s economic biotech industry division.

Pharmaceutical makers, a major beneficiary of the genome technology, are both vying and cooperating with each other to best utilize new genomic discoveries in developing biotech drugs.

In a bid to win intensifying global competition, a group of 22 Japanese pharmaceutical makers set up a consortium in June to analyze the 3-D structures of proteins.

On an individual firm basis, Takeda Chemical Industries Ltd., Japan’s largest pharmaceutical maker and a member of the consortium, contracted with Celera Genomics last year to utilize its human genome databases.

Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., another major drug maker also belonging to the consortium, is taking a different approach, however.

Tatsumi Yamazaki, the firm’s vice president in charge of product planning and research, said his firm has narrowed down its target areas to the development of therapeutic antibodies, a field where the company has superior expertise.

“We are trying to become a global niche,” he said, noting that several of its antibody drugs developed on genomic discovery may be put on the market around 2005.

Yamazaki said ongoing advancement of “bioinformatics” — collecting, collating and analyzing biotech data — will greatly increase the efficiency of drug discovery and development. A conventional drug-discovery process, which requires screening numerous kinds of substances relying on researchers’ experience and hunches, usually takes more than a decade, according to industry sources.

The recent mapping of the human genes and efficient use of genome data are expected to shorten that period of time substantially.

“We think applying the genomic drug-discovery method to a traditional one is the most effective means of drug discovery,” Yamazaki said.

A series of venture businesses are sprouting up to offer bioinformatics services, which itself is a growing business.

DNA Chip Research Inc., for example, works as a research and development function of Hitachi Software Engineering Co., a major Japanese DNA chip maker that owns more than 40 percent in its capital.

A DNA chip, a small glass sheet carrying hundreds to thousands of DNA sets, is a tool to find differences in genetic sequences efficiently.

“Scientists like myself can provide biotechnology expertise that many Japanese companies don’t have,” said Kenichi Matsubara, president of DNA Chip Research and a visiting professor at Nara Institute of Science and Technology.

The biotech venture, set up in 1999, designs DNA chips for clients, makes databases of genetic information and gathers DNA samples of various kinds of creatures, according to Matsubara, a leading DNA scientist in Japan.

If Japan is to make the most of the unfolding of genetic information, however, Matsubara and many other researchers say it is indispensable to promote greater collaboration among the government, the private sector and academics.

Toward that end, the government eased regulations last year to allow scientists at state-run universities and research centers to engage in businesses. Thanks partly to this step, 60 biotech ventures were set up this year alone, bringing the total number to 220, compared with 60 in 1998.

Matsubara points to the need for more people capable of understanding both biotechnology and information technology to enable efficient bioinformatic services.

Minoru Tomita, a senior researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc., meanwhile, said that enhancing understanding of the functions of genes and proteins is key to improving Japan’s competitiveness.

“Seeds that directly lead to businesses can be found in functional analysis of proteins and genes, not in DNA sequencing,” he explained.

Noting that some 70 percent of the Japanese biotech market is composed of businesses using U.S.-invented technologies, Tomita seeks a mechanism that will ensure a smooth flow of technologies and other findings from universities to businesses.

Basic research findings in university labs can often provide business seeds, but Japan has yet to fully utilize them, he said.

Japanese universities and businesses must be better linked, he said, to facilitate the development of original technology and improve overall competitiveness in this emerging field.

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