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Japanese firms push into cell therapy

Giants Takeda, Fujifilm, and Astellas stake their presence in emerging sector

by Jean-François Tremblay
February 19, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 8

A photo of people, several of them 50 and over, walking on a sidewalk in Tokyo.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
The need for cell therapies is growing as people live longer in Japan and other developed countries.

Three big Japanese companies—Fujifilm, Takeda Pharmaceutical, and Astellas Pharma—have struck deals in the field of cell therapy as they seek competitive advantage in the emerging business.

Fujifilm, the relentlessly diversifying photo giant, will team up with the drugmaker Takeda to develop regenerative medicine treatments for heart failure. The two will collaborate to bring to market heart muscle cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs)—cells that don’t have to be custom-made for each person. The partnership will combine Fujifilm’s growing expertise with manufacturing iPSCs with Takeda’s track record of securing regulatory approval for new treatments.

Separately, Astellas will pay up to $102 million in up-front and milestone payments to acquire Seattle-based Universal Cells. The two started collaborating in the fall to develop an undisclosed single treatment; acquiring the U.S. company will allow Astellas to use its technology in any number of therapeutic areas. Universal Cells’ know-how lies in manipulating the human leukocyte antigen to lower the risk of donor rejection in cell therapy.

Major Japanese firms have demonstrated a keen interest in the cell therapy business in recent years. Fujifilm notably paid $300 million in 2015 for Cellular Dynamics, a U.S. firm that has developed a cell therapy for macular edema, an eye disease that can lead to blindness. Hitachi Chemical, meanwhile, has been positioning itself as a contract manufacturer of autologous stem cells—cells that are extracted from individual patients and grown in incubators before being grafted back in.


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