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HEALTH

The positive side effects of Japan’s push for generic drugs

Japan’s drive to boost generics could revolutionize how people around the world take their medicine

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Traditionally, Japanese doctors and consumers relied on brand-name drugs much more than other nations, but government targets to boost the use of generics have transformed Japan’s pharmaceutical market and inspired a wave of potentially lifesaving research. 

Faced with an aging population, increasing life-span and a low birthrate, reducing costs in Japan’s healthcare sector is paramount. That’s why, in 2007, the Japanese government began setting targets for generic drugs. At that time, the aim was for 30 percent of all pharmaceuticals sold to be generic by 2013. After meeting that goal, the targets have been steadily ramping up, with the current target set at 80 percent by 2020.

The shift to generics, which are produced using the same active ingredients as the original after the drug’s patent has expired, has already made a hugely positive impact on the state’s coffers. According to the Japanese health ministry, the country is estimated to have saved ¥1.3 trillion ($11.8 billion) in the 2017 fiscal year because of the increasing use of generics. This is the biggest reduction on record and greatly exceeded the government’s predictions.

But generic drugs aren’t just about saving money. The success of generics in what is the world’s second-largest pharmaceuticals market, according to the Japanese government, has created new business opportunities for Japanese pharmaceutical companies. Now, innovative businesses are investing heavily in research that is changing how people around the world take their medication.

“Of course, to cure any sort of disease or illness, drugs must be properly taken and administered. That’s why it is so important to make drugs that are easy to take,” said Itsuro Yoshida, president of Towa Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.

Although Julie Andrews sang about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, for certain sectors of the population, properly taking medication can be much more complicated and serious.

Towa Pharmaceutical has already developed the exclusive and award-winning RACTAB (Rapid and Comfortable Tablet) technology, which is used to manufacture high-resistance tablets that dissolve in the mouth without the need for water. For healthy individuals, this may be a welcome innovation, but for people who have problems swallowing or lack access to safe drinking water, access to these types of pills can be the difference between life and death.  

Towa Pharmaceutical's Okayama Plant. Between this, and the company's other two plants, Towa has the manufacturing capacity for a total of 11 billion tablets per year.
The Osaka Plant, which is open to receive visitors so they can observe Towa's cutting-edge manufacturing facilities for themselves.
The earthquake-resistant Yamagata Plant is where Towa's injections are manufactured. Photos: Towa Pharmaceutical

Towa Pharmaceutical has already developed the exclusive and award-winning RACTAB (Rapid and Comfortable Tablet) technology, which is used to manufacture high-resistance tablets that dissolve in the mouth

Towa Pharmaceutical is also is the process of developing a new technology that completely masks the bitterness in all of their medications and is studying how to create more drugs that can be absorbed through the skin.

Another potentially critical innovation in generic drug research surrounds developing ways to make drugs that are longer-lasting and more durable. At the moment, the typical lifespan of tablets is 3 years and they lose their properties in heat, humidity or light, according to Yoshida.

“If we can create something that has a lifespan of 5 to 10 years and can survive in any sort of environment, we would be able to help many places, especially countries in South East Asia or Africa,” he said, pointing out that in those regions adequate storage or safe-drinking water is not always available and the climates tend to be hotter and more humid.

So, with Japanese talent more focused than ever on generic drugs, the world may be in store for some game-changing advances in the pharmaceutical industry that could not only help states and consumers save millions of dollars, but also make safe and effective drugs more universally accessible.

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