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Healthcare Innovation in Asia

It’s predicted that by 2030, over 60% of the world’s population and two thirds of the middle class will be in Asia, and so too the majority of new cancer patients, potentially shifting the global focus of healthcare innovation from the US and Europe to Asia.

Looking back from when I first discovered the magic of Asia as a boy visiting Japan in 1967 and my subsequent return 30 years later in 1997 to set up one of the first international clinical trials in China, the Asia Pacific region has experienced dramatic change in the arena of healthcare.

I’ve seen firsthand during my time working in the region how the regulatory environment, socio-economic development, growing medical needs and the ability to innovate have transformed Asia Pacific in unprecedented ways. 

In my 9 years with Johnson & Johnson, we have focused our efforts in Asia Pacific on innovation that has a broad, lasting, life-enhancing impact. I have overseen our pharmaceutical sector R&D’s growth to over 1,500 researchers and science professionals in our region. In China alone, we have grown our R&D organization from under 120 science professionals in 2011 to almost 500 today.

Our teams are dedicated to discover, develop, and deliver healthcare solutions to some of the world’s most challenging diseases at our discovery laboratories in Shanghai and development centers in Beijing, Tokyo and Shanghai; and through our medical and regulatory professionals throughout the region.

Investment in infrastructure and talent is transforming the innovation ecosystem in China and elsewhere in Asia. In Japan for example, a concurrent commitment of the health authority to build both scientific capabilities and capacity to achieve world class cycle times and scientifically driven reviews resulted in a levelling of the playing field between foreign and local companies that set the stage for Janssen to launch a new treatment for hepatitis C in Japan before any other country in the world. Japan continues to mature as a global leader in regulatory practice, policy and innovation.

China has followed suit with regulatory reforms and investments that are positioning the country to be a potential leader in future innovation. China spent a total of $279 billion on R&D in 2017, and has an annual growth rate of 18.3% (2% of GDP), with commitments to spend more than 4% of the GDP on the biotech sector by 2020.

But perhaps even more significant for innovation in China is the current boom in venture capital spending which has seen 1,287% growth from 2013 to 2018 and the return of thousands of highly trained Chinese from overseas.

The growth and commitment to innovation in healthcare across the region is exciting and holds much promise. But we know that while we envision a world without disease we can’t realize this ambition alone.

We are continuously collaborating with different partners in technology and science to develop transformational innovation solutions for patients to bring better health.

As a signal of the new wave of innovation coming from the region, we announced collaborations with Korean companies Hanmi Pharmaceutical in 2016 to take on the region’s growing diabetes epidemic and Yuhan Pharmaceuticals earlier this month for lung cancer treatment.

Last December, we announced a partnership with China’s Legend Biotech to develop CAR-T immunotherapy for multiple myeloma, and with India’s Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTech) for the discovery of new tuberculosis treatments. And the list goes on.

Today, we are seeing the prospects for future innovation growing across the region.

In China, we are seeing the fruits of the regulatory changes, with rapid approvals of innovative therapies and the ability to participate in global trials as a route to registration. 

Japan continues to have innovative biomedical research, with the remaining challenge of limited translational research and challenges for multinational corporations in finding the key opportunities. Korea, Singapore and Australia have active biomedical research environments, with opportunities for local, regional or global partnerships. 

While the ability to run multinational trials in India has improved with recent changes in the regulatory environment, the requirements for registration remain unpredictable and sometimes burdensome.    

While time zones and physical distance remain challenges to global companies working in our region, biomedical innovation in the Asia Pacific region continues to be a huge opportunity for us.

With the growth of talent, investment and friendlier government policies, the future will surely have significant representation of Asia-originated therapies in global portfolios. 

Add to that the growing capabilities in Asia Pacific in areas of regenerative medicine, gene and cell therapy and artificial intelligence, as well as the rapid adoption of digital health as it converges with traditional medicine, and we can expect Asia Pacific to be a driving force in healthcare innovation over the next 20 years and beyond.

The Asian healthcare landscape continues to change at an accelerating pace and scale, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry. But personally, I have been excited to play a role in transforming the trajectory of life science innovation in the region over the past 20+ years, and to be part of the journey that’s led to the creation a world-leading innovation hotspot. I’m excited by the prospect of what lies ahead as we remain focused on improving the health of humans across our region and beyond.