While historically lacking in foreign investments, Japan’s biotech scene is thriving with global investors showing increasing interest. Here are five of the hottest Japanese private companies innovating in the healthcare space.
Japan boasts one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and, faced with a rapidly aging population, is witnessing a growing burden of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. For this reason, the Japanese healthcare authorities are encouraging research into the treatment and prevention of these diseases, in addition to promoting the potential of regenerative medicine.
In addition to having a roster of healthcare giants including Takeda, Astellas Pharma and Eisai, Japan is also an Asian hotspot for biotech companies. Upcoming startups have historically been limited in foreign funding and reliant on local venture capital players such as Nippon Venture Capital, Shinsei Capital Partners, and the University of Tokyo Edge Capital Partners.
In 2021, however, the amount of foreign investment flowing into the Japanese biotech space rose to $98 million, almost triple the haul of previous years. The most prominent global backers included Newton Biocapital, F-Prime Capital, and SoftBank Group. This trend arose as the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a wave of investor enthusiasm in biotechnology around the world.
With the help of local experts, we’ve listed five of the hottest private biotech companies in Japan. These firms, shown in alphabetical order, have raised large funding rounds in the last two years and are developing innovative treatments for a range of conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease and inflammatory disorders.
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Chordia Therapeutics Inc.
Chordia Therapeutics derives its name from the English term ‘chord’ — referring to a collection of musical notes normally played in harmony. In a similar way, the company aims to work in harmony with stakeholders and collaborators to develop first-in-class small molecule treatments for cancer.
Chordia’s lead program is a drug that disrupts the processing of RNA in tumor cells. In a healthy cell, RNA molecules are typically transcribed from a DNA template and spliced together to guide the production of new proteins. Some cancer cells accumulate mutations in the RNA splicing machinery and become vulnerable to Chordia’s drugs that interfere with this process.
Chordia raised $31 million (4 billion yen) in a Series C round in May 2022. The aim of the round was to push the company’s lead drug through phase I testing and fund the preclinical development of the rest of its pipeline.
This month, the company announced interim results from the phase I trial of its lead candidate, with four of the recruited patients so far showing signs of responding to the treatment.
Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is irreparably damaged and is unable to pump blood. While this deadly condition can be treated with a heart transplant, there is a general shortage of donors available, making a pressing need for alternatives.
In June 2021, the stem cell therapy developer Heartseed raised $36.5 million (4 billion yen) in a Series C round. The mission is to provide a regenerative route to saving the heart via stem cell therapy.
In the lab, Heartseed reprograms skin cells from the patient into a type of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cells and grows these stem cells into heart muscle cells. The company then injects the muscle cells as a small cluster, or ‘seed,’ into heart tissue to repair the muscle.
The proceedings from its Series C round will allow Heartseed to take its lead candidate into clinical development, including a phase I/II trial scheduled for later this year. Last year, Heartseed also licensed its treatment to Novo Nordisk in Denmark to co-develop the treatment outside of Japan.
LUCA Science Inc.
LUCA Science hit the headlines in the last week for raising an impressive $30.3 million (3.86 billion yen) in a Series B round. The company is developing an unusual approach for treating a wide range of diseases: delivering a therapy based on mitochondria, the energy production plants in human cells.
One example where the technology could work well is in strokes and heart attacks, where blood flow is blocked to critical tissue in the brain and heart respectively. The reperfusion of blood to these tissues after the blockage can kill the tissue by damaging its mitochondria. Delivering healthy mitochondria could keep the tissue working properly and protect it from harm.
LUCA Science plans to use its recent Series B winnings to accelerate the preclinical development of its mitochondrial therapies and establish its manufacturing process. In May 2022, the firm also inked a collaboration deal with compatriot pharmaceutical company Kyowa Kirin Co., Ltd. to co-develop a mitochondrial therapy for rare genetic diseases.
Modulus Discovery Inc.
Headquarters: Boston, U.S., and Tokyo
Modulus Discovery is a preclinical-stage drug discovery specialist. The company focuses on developing small molecule treatments for conditions such as cancer, inflammatory disorders and rare genetic conditions.
The firm uses a mixture of strategies to speed up the drug discovery process. These include simulating target proteins using a supercomputer; structural protein biology; forming collaborations such as with the peptide drug expert PeptiDream; and tapping into global networks for biological expertise. Modulus’ most advanced drug program is in late-stage preclinical testing for the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.
In March 2022, Modulus bagged $20.4 million (2.34 billion yen) in a Series C round. The cash is earmarked to advance the company’s R&D programs by expanding its infrastructure, collaborations and headcount.
Noile-Immune Biotech Inc.
The name Noile-Immune is derived from blending together the phrases ‘no illness’ and ‘no immunity, no life.’ This company is developing CAR-T cell therapies for the treatment of cancer, which traditionally consist of extracting the patient’s immune T cells, engineering them in the lab to hunt down cancer cells, and reinfusing them into the patient.
Unlike approved CAR-T cell therapies, which are limited to treating forms of blood cancer, Noile-Immune aims its therapies at treating solid tumors. The company does this by engineering immune T cells to produce proteins that cause immune cells to migrate into the tumor site.
Noile-Immune is testing its lead candidate in a phase I in patients with solid tumors. The firm is also co-developing therapies with partners including Takeda and the European cell therapy specialists Adaptimmune and Autolus. Additionally, Noile-Immune has an allogeneic version of its cell therapy in the pipeline — where immune T cells are sourced from healthy donors rather than the patient.
To finance the clinical development of its lead candidate, Noile-Immune raised $21.8 million (2.38 billion yen) in a Series C round in early 2021. The company hit a setback in January 2022 when a collaboration deal fell through with the U.S. player Legend Biotech. Nonetheless, other external companies remain interested in Noile-Immune’s offering, including Japan-based Daiichi Sankyo Company Ltd., which opted to assess Noile-Immune’s technology in late 2021.
Cover image via Elena Resko. Inline images via Shutterstock.
Thanks to feedback from Shiohara Azusa, VC investor at the University of Tokyo Edge Capital Partners, and Hironoshin Nomura, Chief Financial Officer at Sosei Group Corporation.