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Personalized genetic data is key to precision medicine. Photo: Pixabay

Why Japan is poised to become a global leader in precision medicine

Precision medicine has captured the imagination of the public and private sectors in Japan with its promises to use big data to help determine the most effective medical treatments 

Despite incredible advances in medicine over the last century, much of the treatment for ailments, whether that be high blood pressure, depression or cancer, is based on trial and error. While one pill, surgery or therapy may work wonders for some individuals, others, with the same broad condition, can gain little to no benefit from the same treatment and even be adversely affected by harmful side effects.

But, with precision medicine poised to be the next big revolution in healthcare, that could all soon be about to change. This new approach uses data and technology to focus on each individual’s specific health needs and gets rid of the one-treatment-fits-all model. And Japan, a country with an aging population, highly advanced technology and strength in R&D, aims to be at the forefront of this groundbreaking shift in healthcare.

“Its development requires the best and brightest researchers from multi-disciplinary sectors including medicine, bio-science, physics, radiology and computer science all working together and can be drastically expedited by fully using artificial intelligence and sharing data across borders,” said Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Japan’s former minister of health, labor and welfare in 2016, pointing out that the Japanese government would be dramatically boosting its efforts in this field over the coming years.

“Precision medicine can be drastically expedited by using artificial intelligence and sharing data across borders”

Yasuhisa Shiozaki

Former Japanese minister of health, labor and welfare

Several programs are already underway in Japan for the country to secure a head start in precision medicine, which conservative estimates predict will have a global cost-saving effect of $26 billion per year.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Japan, accounting for 28.5 percent of all deaths in 2016, and has become a promising focal point of the data-fueled approach to medicine. Currently, Japan’s National Cancer Center’s genome screening and TOP-GEAR genetic testing projects are using big data to find clinical applications to fight cancer, and the MASTER KEY project, a collaboration between the private sector and academia, is working to optimize genomic medicine for rare cancers.

More broadly, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is on the hunt for biomarkers that identify risks for stroke and kidney failure. The BioBank Japan Project, which got its start in 2003 with the aim of providing evidence for personalized medicine by constructing a large, patient-based biobank, has collected vast sums of patient data and human biospecimens that are already having far-reaching repercussions on the medical community.

“The next five years will be a crucial window for pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on this promise”

PricewaterhouseCoopers strategy report-

Capitalizing on precision medicine: How pharmaceutical firms can shape the future of healthcare

A 2017 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers illustrates the fact that precision medicine has become a priority for the healthcare industry worldwide. According to its survey of top pharmaceutical company leaders, 92 percent of respondents view precision medicine as an opportunity, and 84 percent said it’s on the company agenda.

“Precision medicine will transform the entire pharmaceutical value chain, from early development to companies’ go-to-market models, and the next five years will be a crucial window for pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on this promise,” says the report. However, the survey found that relatively few companies have capitalized on the trend, blaming lack of data, data processing capacity and an uncertain regulatory environment for the lag.

 “Today for the genome is like the 90s for the Internet. Although technological innovations made the Internet accessible for many, applications for daily use had not been developed,” said Tomohiro Takano, CEO and Co-Founder of AWAKENS, a Japanese start-up that wants to empower individuals to build a healthier lifestyle based on their own genetic makeup.

Besides AWAKENS, several other Japanese start-ups and established companies are working to build the new sector from the ground up. In 2017, Japanese multinational SoftBank Group made a $360 investment in Guardant Health, which aims to sequence tumor DNA of more than 1 million cancer patients within five years. And in 2018, Chugai Pharmaceutical, one of Japan’s leading research-based pharmaceutical companies, filed for regulatory approval to use FoundationOne CDx, which would enable comprehensive genomic profiling for solid tumors.

So perhaps, the future of medicine in Japan and throughout the world could soon look something like this: a man with a cancer diagnosis goes to his healthcare provider who works with partners to analyze his genome, the DNA of the tumor, and the various biomarkers in his body. Simultaneously, wearable technology is used to track the man’s lifestyle and health fluctuations throughout his daily life. Then, the large stacks of data are compiled, crunched and compared to other available global data with the assistance of AI to determine the best treatment for his particular body and cancer.

Not only could that expand the potential to cure the disease, but save the time, health and money wasted on ineffective treatments. At the same time, applying data to healthcare could significantly boost the chances of preventing illnesses and for early detection.

And while it may seem the stuff of science fiction, to think that 15 years ago it cost $2.7 billion to sequence the human genome but today that price has fallen to around $1,000, according to National Human Genome Research Institute, inspires hope for individuals around the world who want to live a long, healthy life. At the same time, it also provides a great opportunity for the public health care sector and the businesses that can help make it happen.

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