Breaking barriers to innovation: Integrating Research and Business Development to accelerate novel therapies
Life science leaders, innovators and the investment community will convene in San Francisco this January for what is arguably the biggest week of the healthcare partnering calendar. Ahead of this, Astellas’ Chief Scientific Officer, Yoshitsugu Shitaka, Head of Business Development, Issei Tsukamoto, and Primary Focus Lead for Targeted Protein Degradation, Chinatsu Sakata-Sakurai, share their perspectives on how the close relationship between in-house Research and Business Development (BD) teams, alongside external partners, is increasingly important for innovation success.
With new drug modalities and technologies continuing to drive industry growth, what are the biggest challenges innovators are facing today?
Yoshitsugu Shitaka: It’s an exciting time for us in research, knowing we’re contributing to a new wave of innovation across the industry. Advanced technologies and modalities, such as cell and gene therapies, have immense potential to deliver transformative treatments for diseases with high unmet need. Translating these innovations from idea to clinic into the approved treatments patients are waiting for, however, is no small feat.
We have to acknowledge that many scientific advances being investigated today are in their relative infancy. They demand an intricate understanding of the complex nature of disease and various biological mechanisms. Attrition rates remain high, particularly in early-stage research where many programs don’t make it out of the lab, and those that do often require specialized manufacturing strategies that are yet to be invented.
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We are dealing with a lot of unknowns, but the exciting potential for patients in need drives us forward. We can only tackle these challenges by building partnerships, across industry and working together.
Issei Tsukamoto: The other critical factor when dealing with this level of complexity is close collaboration between internal teams and divisions – particularly between your Research leads and BD scouts. By taking a holistic, integrated approach, guided by a clear, long-term strategy, we can best identify the opportunities and partnerships to help close the gaps and accelerate our work in areas with the greatest potential for patients.
How do you balance the need to explore the potential of emerging technologies with your longer-term innovation goals?
Issei Tsukamoto: We’re seeing an increased emphasis on early-stage innovation as organizations double-down on their pre-clinical pipelines. This reflects the opportunity of new biology and modalities to address unmet medical needs, as well as a shift toward sustainable, long-term growth.
We all want to explore what these new approaches can deliver for patients, but we have to be strategic in how we use our time, resources and expertise. If we’re to succeed, it must be a coordinated effort – not just at a deal or partnering level, but also internally.
Which is why, at Astellas, we focus our internal and partnering activities in specialist areas where we believe we have the greatest opportunity to deliver significant and meaningful value, including immuno-oncology, cell and gene therapy, targeted protein degradation, blindness and regeneration, and mitochondria.
In today’s competitive BD environment, how do you choose the right external innovation partner and set your teams up for success?
Issei Tsukamoto: The right partner isn’t necessarily the one with the newest platform. It is the partner who shares your long-term vision. If a partnership is the right fit, it will enable both parties to unite complementary capabilities and aspirations so they can accelerate toward a shared goal.
Of course, the real work starts once the partnership agreement has been signed. At Astellas, we view partnerships as dynamic. Priorities and needs can evolve over time, and our deal structures must facilitate that, providing the flexibility and space to build and maintain trusted relationships.
We find multi-touchpoint alliances to be a strong model. This iterative approach has enabled us to engage with prospective partners early, nurture great thinking together and then evolve our partnership as the work progresses.
Yoshitsugu Shitaka: Speed and adaptability are critical in today’s innovation environment, and we have purposefully evolved the way we work to ensure our people can operate as rapidly and flexibly as our partners – many of which are small, agile biotechs. We have created an environment where our teams collaborate effectively across divisions, integrating diverse technologies and embracing calculated risks to make smarter decisions faster.
Astellas has identified targeted protein degradation (TPD) as a primary focus area for research and investment. How are you blending in-house and external innovation in practice here?
Chinatsu Sakata-Sakurai: TPD is a field of innovation that could reshape treatment expectations for many diseases, and we are already seeing how bringing together in-house expertise and external innovation capabilities can open new doors.
Our Research team began investigating KRAS G12D degraders in 2020, identifying a potentially first-in-class therapy at unprecedented speed, followed by rapid study initiation and enrollment.
What is really fascinating about heterobifunctional degraders is that they are expandable technologies: by changing parts of the structure, we can quickly increase the number of proteins we can potentially target, including proteins which were considered historically “undruggable.” This is where strategic collaborations play a pivotal role in helping us maximize the potential of TPD therapies for patients.
In 2023, we entered a partnership with specialist biopharma, Cullgen, to enhance our collective ability to discover multiple innovative protein degraders. We believe this collaboration will bring synergies between our cutting-edge research to develop protein degraders with targets that have never been successful with other modalities, with the aim of delivering transformative therapies for patients in need.
What makes this partnership stand out is that we are already discovering new ways to potentially enhance the effectiveness of TPDs, reduce toxicity, enhance tissue selectivity and overcome drug resistance.
What does the future hold for a more integrated innovation approach?
Issei Tsukamoto: With the current industry-wide focus on early-stage innovation, blending internal and external expertise to drive research forward and overcome the challenges of the day is critical. Research and BD functions, and their external partners, will need to be more connected than ever to unlock the potential of next-generation therapies and deliver sustainable growth.
Yoshitsugu Shitaka: It’s important to recognize that the more we collaborate internally and externally, the more we expand our thinking, broaden our perspectives and create conditions for innovation to thrive – not just within our own organizations, but in the wider innovation ecosystem. Ultimately, more integrated innovation will deliver more progress and value for patients.
Chief Scientific Officer,
Astellas Pharma Inc
SVP, Head of Business
Astellas Pharma Inc
VP, Primary Focus Lead Targeted Protein
Astellas Pharma Inc