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Dojin: Leading advancements in regenerative medicine

Interview - February 15, 2023

Since its founding in 1913, Japanese firm Dojin has sought to improve people’s health through innovation, and its unique technology can help make a wider positive impact as it expands globally. Dojin focuses on areas such as immunity, antibodies and genes – fields where technological innovation has progressed significantly in recent years – and develops pharmaceuticals, diagnostic agents and regenerative medicine.

KEIMA UENO | CEO OF DOJIN GROUP, CO., LTD.

Since 2008, Japan's population has been declining and aging, and 1 in 3 people are expected to be over 65 by 2035, thus creating two main problems for Japanese companies. Firstly, the domestic market shrinks and there are less people to sell products to. Therefore, many Japanese companies are looking overseas for new sales opportunities. Secondly, it is becoming more difficult to recruit talented engineers, pharmaceutical workers and staff working in their specific fields. What is your company doing to react to this population change? What challenges and opportunities are these demographic issues presenting for your firm?

Japan’s aging demographic and declining population is a structural issue, which means that it is not something that we can change. Nevertheless, we can take control of our response and strategy to overcome this challenge. One of the strategies that we can effectuate is the use of AI and robotics to counteract the insufficient workforce. Also, our approach is extending the lifespan of the working population. The current retirement age is set at 65 in many cases, but if we can stretch that to 75, another ten years will add 20% of output for each individual. Slowing down the aging of the physical body and the decline of mental faculties is important. We are exerting much effort towards finding ways to treat degenerative diseases such as cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s through drug development, R&D, manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and regenerative medicine as well as the sales and marketing of these products.

 

There is a need for the early detection of degenerative diseases, which decrease the quality of life of the healthy working population. We see the healthcare industry switching from a treatment model to a preventative model in that respect. In the case of your firm, what type of technologies are you working on? How are you helping to solve the issue of early diagnosis and treatment?

Early diagnosis is imperative for any disease, and we are especially focusing on two areas: cancer and infection. Regarding cancer diagnosis, we developed a unique method of detecting tumor cells in our body using immunostaining. This patented technology allows us to detect tumor cells by culturing cells isolated from blood, and to provide timely and reasonable cancer diagnosis services to customers.

With regard to the infection field, we are developing diagnostic agents and kits mainly for hepatitis virus. We have special technologies of antigen-antibody reaction which enable us to diagnose hepatitis virus infection with much higher accuracy and less time than existing methods. This technology is also applicable to broad fields of infection, such as COVID, allergy, and sexually transmitted disease.

 

Your five distinctive business divisions are chemical and pharmaceutical, regenerative medicine, biotechnology, consumer and strategic investment. Why was it important to move to a holding group? With a clearer separation of these companies, what are some of the synergies that you are able to create from this new structure?

The life science sector is quite fragmented, and each business requires a different business model. For example, even if based on the same technology, pharmaceuticals and diagnostics must operate completely different timeframes and regulations. The revenue model and R&D process are also quite different. In such a situation, we believe that the best way to manage the life science businesses is to make them separate entities and integrate as group companies. That’s why we moved to the holding group structure in 2019.

The most important key factor is to create synergies among our group companies. For example, we have patented antigen-antibody reaction technology, and we are using this technology in multiple fields within the group, such as development of antibody drugs, diagnostic agents and chemical reagents. Our business model and strategy are designed to take advantage of all these numerous synergistic effects that come from just one technology.

 

There has been a concerted effort from academia, government and various industries toward Japan’s regulatory framework for developing regenerative medicine. This system has seen discoveries be conditionally approved and fast-tracked to the market, such as, for example, the pluripotent stem cells that were first discovered by the Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka in 2012. Could you give us your assessment of Japan’s regulatory framework, and what do you think about its ability to develop new regenerative medicines?

Japan is slower in implementing medical regulations, and it often brings a drug lag or device lag. It is said that there is a five-year delay compared to the US market. However, the only field within the medical sector in Japan which has garnered recognition for its progress is regenerative medicine. With Japan’s new regulatory framework for regenerative medicine in 2014, the government has greatly promoted its advancement and has become more welcoming of medical research and development in this field. We entered the regenerative medicine market with the revision of the law in 2014, and have developed many products to date.

I believe that the structural changes that were applied to the regenerative medicine sector were extremely successful; therefore, those changes and regulations should now be implemented in the other fields of the medical sector. By doing so, all of the medical sectors can benefit from things such as conditional approval or approval at the early stages.



Cancer is one of the major causes of death worldwide, and it is expected that there will be 28.4 million deaths or a 47% increase over current numbers by 2047. Your company’s regenerative medicine business has a number of technologies and patents related to cancer treatment. Could you explain more about those patents and how are you contributing to that field?

Cancer immunotherapy is one of our most focused areas. Throughout humanity’s long history, the three predominant methods for cancer treatment are chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. The fourth treatment that has emerged from the advancements in regenerative medicine is immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy is the least invasive treatment which is its greatest strength. Each day, our bodies are developing some cancer-prone cells, but immune cells have the power to detect, recognize and attack cancer cells. We are utilizing the mechanism that our bodies already possess to fight cancer cells through our immune system, and it greatly differs from traditional drugs. We collect blood from patients, isolate immune cells from the blood, and activate immune cells by culturing them. The culture increases the number of immune cells more than 2000-fold, which is then given back to the patient via an infusion. This treatment is characterized by almost no side effects because it increases and returns the immune cells that are originally in the patient's body.

We have established an original culture method based on patented technology, which makes it possible to simultaneously increase and activate six types of immune cells – Killer T cells, NK cells, NKT cells, dendritic cells, γδT cells, and helper T cells. The efficacy of this treatment is more than 70%, and it can treat almost all types of cancer. There have not yet been any competitors who have developed a similar kind of technology until now.

 

Although your company’s regenerative medicine business is focused on cancer, what potential do you see regenerative medicine having for the medical field? What new elements do you see as the focus for that type of medicine in the future?

The application of regenerative medicine is broad. In addition to cancer immunotherapy, we are leveraging the technology to expand into several new areas, such as joint pain treatment, gum health, skin treatment, and fertility treatment.

For example, last year we launched “Repair Knees”, a regenerative factor injection therapy product for joint pain. In terms of patient population, the market size for joint pain is even greater than the already sizable market for cancer treatment. There are two standard methods to treat knee, elbow or joint pain. One is the use of hyaluronic acid, which is for a wide range of pain and injuries, and surgery is employed for more serious cases. The downside to the use of hyaluronic acid injection treatment is that it is temporary and only provides immediate relief; meanwhile, surgeries are invasive and cause permanent damage to the joints, tissues and tendons. The technology behind our “Repair Knees” completely nullifies these demerits. We extract blood from the patient to stimulate the growth of the cells and enhance their bioavailability before reintroducing them to specific inflammation areas like the knee joints, tendons and cartilage.

Besides the medical products and services, we also developed new products in the non-medical fields such as healthcare supplements and cosmetics. Our cosmetic products, Saibi, have become more popular in China than in Japan, where 90% of our sales come from.

 

How does the holding structure provide sufficient resources to fund your company’s M&A strategy?

M&A is a key for our business strategy because biotechnology requires a lot of time for R&D. If we were to proceed with our drug development by doing everything from scratch, it would take a tremendous amount of time. The optimal strategy is M&As, where we further promote products that already exist in the market. 

We use a portfolio to manage the companies and projects under us. Using a coordinate plane where the vertical axis represents the profits, and the horizontal axis denotes the growth potential, we can map out our different projects, businesses and companies. As part of our strategy, we need a stable fund and fast cash generation to be allocated to the areas that would benefit most from research and development. Our business requires not only businesses with high profitability and growth potential but also more traditional sectors that deliver stable cash flow. 

 

Which international market will you be focusing on to continue your growth?

For the short and midterm goal, we are looking at the Asian market. Though our main focus now is China, we want to expand to countries with a growing population and economic growth like Indonesia and Malaysia. For the long term, we are prioritizing the African market as it is the most attractive in terms of having the fastest-growing population, particularly in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We already have a co-creation partnership with a university in DRC, and we are working to advance several projects there.

 

Imagine we come back on your last day as president to interview you again. What objectives or ultimate ambition would you like to have achieved during your time as president?

It has been over 100 years since our company started our founding business. My vision is to create a company that does not require my presence to keep growing for the next 100 years. Since there is still room for me to contribute to the company, it means that the company is in the middle of its growth. The final goal is to create a sustainable environment that will not rely on me. Even without me, it will be a company that will grow while providing a safe and secure environment for all involved.

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