“[These] are breakthroughs in clinical medicine”

A leg up 

Japanese biomaterials support innovative treatments

 


July 2020 Business Spotlight / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Benjamin Parks


With more than a third of Japan’s population expected to be 65 and over by 2050, there will be a growing number of creaky knees and arthritic joints across the country. Already, more than 100,000 people in Japan undergo knee or cartilage replacement surgery every year, so the pressure is on to create better treatments with longer-lasting results.

One firm striving to give Japan’s elderly a leg up is GN Corporation. It is a medical bioscience company that specialises in creating solutions using biomaterials, which are substances that help cells grow in the laboratory.

“The biomaterials that we use maintain the integrity of the cells, even outside the body,” says Dr Samuel Abraham, the head of research and development at Yamanashi Prefecture-based GN Corporation, who is also a member of the University of Yamanashi’s Faculty of Medicine. “Our biomaterials are chemically synthesised — so there’s no biological contamination — but they are bio-friendly. Each application needs a different biomaterial.”

The engineered cells and tissue can in turn be implanted into the body to replace damaged tissue or stimulate the body’s own healing abilities, a method of treatment known as regenerative medicine. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, the global regenerative medicine market could be worth $345 billion by 2050.

“If there is a big hole in a wall, all you need is the bricks and mortar to fix it — regenerative medicine is like that, in a sense,” explains Abraham.

GN Corporation partnered with the Edogawa Evolutionary Lab of Science (EELS) in 2016 to develop and test applications for the firm’s biomaterials. They have opened a cell processing facility for basic research and a biomaterials lab for novel materials research. They have also, so far, developed two novel solutions in regenerative medicine, one in orthopaedics and the other in urology.

“Both are breakthroughs in clinical medicine,” notes Abraham.

Dr Shojiro Katoh, who is head of EELS and president of Edogawa Hospital, recognised the potential of GN Corporation’s biomaterials for producing innovative medical treatments. As an orthopaedic doctor, Katoh works with older patients, who are most likely to develop cartilage issues.

“Today, if someone injures the cartilage in their knee, they will eventually need to get a prosthesis,” he says. “I’m trying to see if we can use a non-invasive procedure to improve the quality of life of the elderly.”

The partnership allowed Katoh to make an important discovery.

“Elderly people come in with damaged cartilage, which has to be thrown away and then replaced with the prosthesis. Dr Katoh thought that there could still be viable cells in the cartilage — that is an outside-the-box idea,” Abraham says. “He took that tissue and carefully dissected its normal cells, and we could develop them into good living tissue in the lab.”

According to Abraham, the use of GN Corporation’s biomaterials ultimately lead to better treatments and outcomes.

“The environment we are able to create using our biomaterials gives a better quality of cell, so this will result in a longer period of healthier life,” he says.

“We are able to grow hyaline cartilage cells, the most suitable type of cells for the repair of damaged knee cartilage,” adds Katoh. “Our method yields pluripotent marker positive tissue, which means the cells produced have the potential for better healing than those cultured using existing methods.”

Although this cartilage regeneration process has yet to begin pilot studies, the long-term effectiveness of cells grown with the appropriate biomaterials has already been demonstrated with another therapy in the field of urology.

 

 

Earlier this year, the firm was granted a patent in Japan for its treatment of urethral stricture in men, a relatively common condition where the urethra narrows, making it difficult and painful to urinate. It affects between 100,000 and 200,000 men in Japan every year, according to Abraham.

The majority of current urethral stricture treatments require surgery, which can cause discomfort and require long stays in hospital. In contrast, the method GN Corporation and EELS developed is a simple, one-day procedure in which cells encased in a biometric polymer scaffold are implanted endoscopically, reducing costs and improving the patient’s quality of life.

“Present urethral stricture treatment methods have significant recurrence rates; patients usually have to undergo the procedure every other year, or sometimes even every year,” says Katoh. “In our pilot study, patients saw at least three to four years without a recurrence. It is very promising.”

The procedure, named Bees-Haus, will now undergo clinical studies in medical centres across Japan before being promoted as a treatment in the rest of the world.

Taking Japanese biomedicine to other countries where treatments are most needed is a major goal of Abraham and Katoh. And with nine European countries following Japan on the list of top ten oldest populations, the medical concerns Japan is facing are also looming large in Europe.

“Most Japanese biomedical technologies are not known to the rest of the world. We’d like to find collaborators who can license our technology and propagate it in Europe,” Abraham says. “There could be some specific, even rare diseases in Europe — in orthopaedics or other areas — that we may not know about. By using this technology and collaborating academically or clinically, we can help the people of Europe.”

GN Corporation is continuing to explore biomaterials to see them used to their fullest potential in clinical applications. The firm is currently preparing two new patent applications.

As clinical trials of the Bees-Haus procedure begin, and as their cartilage treatment moves from pilot studies to clinical trials sometime in the coming years, Abraham and Katoh are also excited to see how far their two most recent breakthroughs in regenerative medicine can go.

“We will have a very big reach with these two treatments over the next few years,” says Katoh.

Abraham adds: “They are going to help a large number of people.” •

“The environment we are able to create using our biomaterials gives a better quality of cell”

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