“We look for researchers with great ideas … to help them further develop their ideas”

On a quest to meet unmet needs

Boehringer Ingelheim’s Research Beyond Borders programme

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

King Arthur sought the Holy Grail; Captain Ahab the White Whale; and Dorothy the Wizard of Oz. German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim is also on a quest, or, rather, a number of concurrent quests — to find unmet medical needs and develop effective treatments for them.

“There’s a quest for therapies, and companies need to find truly innovative ideas,” says Thorsten Pöhl, president and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan. “The challenge is to find the right ideas that can be developed through to a final treatment, which can then be used by patients. You have to show significant differentiation over existing therapies, otherwise you will not be successful.”

In order to see each of its quests through to the end, research and development (R&D) is of the utmost importance. The company has four dedicated research centres around the world, one of which is in Japan — the Kobe Pharma Research Institute. Further proof of Boehringer Ingelheim’s commitment to R&D is that 20% of its net sales are invested in innovation, well ahead of the industry average of 12% in Japan.

Between 2015 and 2020, the firm is spending €11 billion on R&D programmes globally — €5 billion of which has been set aside for pre-clinical research, and €1.5 billion of that for collaborative projects with partners external to the company.

All the research Boehringer Ingelheim is involved with outside its own labs is referred to as “open innovation”. And one of the main ways it engages in open innovation is through its Research Beyond Borders (RBB) programme.

“We look for researchers with great ideas, who we can have collaborations with and support — to help them further develop their ideas,” explains Pöhl. “RBB is a win–win situation; it bridges the original scientific idea with our vast experience in developing drugs, to end up with a safe, approved treatment.”

The firm is working on RBB projects in Germany, the US, China and Japan. Currently, four of these projects are being conducted here, with one more set to start soon.

The most recent of these, announced in October, is a collaboration with Nagoya City University on diabetic retinopathy. The disease is one of the major complications of diabetes and is caused by damage to capillaries in the retina. One-third of the 300 million people worldwide with diabetes are said to show signs of diabetic retinopathy, and it is the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among adults between the ages of 20 and 74. The aim is to learn more about the pathology of the disease in order to find new treatment methods and, ultimately, to improve patients’ quality of life.

Another of Boehringer Ingelheim Japan’s RBB projects is centred on diabetes-related research. Kobe University’s Professor Wataru Ogawa — whose area of specialisation is the relationship between insulin and diabetes — and Boehringer Ingelheim researchers are pooling their knowledge to develop new drugs for type 2 diabetes caused by insulin resistance. In particular, the project is focusing on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, both of which are complications linked to insulin resistance that can result in cirrhosis or even cancer of the liver.

“This joint research is very promising,” says Pöhl, “and it fits in with one of our core therapeutic areas, diabetes.”

A third RBB project in Japan is looking into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a life-threatening lung disease, that can cause respiratory and heart failure. Although treatments are available that can ease the symptoms, there is no cure. Working with Boehringer Ingelheim on this project is a research group at Kyoto University’s Department of Respiratory Medicine that has analysed the disease at the molecular level and made numerous discoveries about its characteristics. The pharma firm also brings considerable expertise to the table, having done research into respiratory diseases for over 95 years.

“We are very knowledgeable about COPD,” notes Pöhl, adding that the project will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of what happens in patients with COPD, as well as methods of early diagnosis and more radical treatments.

Research Beyond Borders doesn’t only mean that Boehringer Ingelheim goes outside its labs, it can also mean going beyond its four core therapeutic areas of cardio-metabolic, the central-nervous system, immunology and respiratory, and oncology.

The RBB programme started in Japan in 2016 with one such project dealing with hearing loss.

“Hairs in our inner ears pick up on soundwaves and are responsible for making the signals that are transmitted to the brain; but, as we age, these little hairs are subject to deterioration and loss,” explains Pöhl. “This is a big unmet need because there are so many people that have hearing impairment worldwide.”

The goal of this project is to develop a revolutionary new therapy for sensorineural hearing loss — one of the most common physical disabilities — that will regenerate hair cells in the inner ear. If Boehringer Ingelheim is successful, it will come as welcome news to an ageing world.

“We really believe in the strengths of Japanese research,” states Pöhl. “Japanese researchers go to the roots of phenomena — there’s a lot of energy and potential for innovation here.”

At the foundation of these collaborations is the desire to establish long-term relationships; business concerns are secondary.

“We have really human-centric values that are not about sales or maximising profits,” Pöhl says. “Our values are respect, trust, empathy and passion, which I think are core ingredients for good relationships.”

It also helps that Boehringer Ingelheim is not listed on the stock market. The firm can pursue its quests over the long term, without needing to change course based on short-sighted demands from shareholders.

“We don’t want to satisfy the stock market every quarter; we want to satisfy customer needs,” says Pöhl. “And that’s a good platform for collaborating.” 

“We really believe in the strengths of Japanese research”