As a boy living near one of Japan’s oldest pharmaceutical companies and heading off on a school excursion to visit another, Yoshihiko Hatanaka had no idea about the vital role he would eventually play in the future of the two Japanese icons.

Yet decades later, Yoshihiko was fundamental in the merger of Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical and Fujisawa Pharmaceutical in 2005, combining nearly two centuries of expertise to create Astellas Pharma Inc.

Today, as the company’s CEO, Yoshihiko fondly recalls his early introduction to the pharmaceutical industry that inspired an unrelenting passion.

“Yes, you could say I had connections very early on from elementary school when I lived very close to Yamanouchi’s factory and went on an excursion to Fujisawa’s factory,” he says.

“Many years later, when I prepared to enter the workforce, I wanted to focus on jobs in the manufacturing industry – to create products that are useable by society – that I believed would grow Japan’s economy, and I was particularly interested in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.”

Yoshihiko Hatanaka says innovation is key to success

Yoshihiko joined the sales and marketing department of Fujisawa in 1980, and worked in various roles in the US and Europe before being appointed vice-president of Corporate Planning in 2003. After the merger, his success continued at Astellas, where he served as chief financial officer and chief strategy officer, before taking up the role of CEO in 2011.

Yoshihiko Hatanaka CEO of Astellas Pharma
Yoshihiko Hatanaka, CEO of Astellas Pharma

Headquartered in Tokyo, with distribution channels in more than 50 countries around the world, Astellas delivers innovative medical solutions to fields including urology, oncology, immunology, nephrology and neuroscience. Advancement in new therapeutic areas, including muscle disease and ophthalmology, and new technologies and modalities, such as regenerative medicine and next-generation vaccines, are other priorities.

“To take a leadership position, obviously, innovation is key,” says Yoshihiko. “Our approach, as far as R&D is concerned, lies in precision medicine. In the past, a mass-medicine approach worked well, but now we have to carefully categorise and identify groups of patients who will potentially benefit from better efficacy or fewer side effects from our products.”

Astellas Pharma is making a difference to patients' lives

Yoshihiko admits that although the pharmaceutical industry is constantly evolving, with organisations seeking to accelerate the pace of innovation and advances in science and information technology, there are obstacles to overcome.

“The industry is in a constant state of flux. The regulatory environment is changing, with efforts to expedite drug approval processes, yet drug discovery is becoming more and more difficult because of the increasing complexity of drug discovery targets and tightening of drug assessment standards. Poverty and underdeveloped healthcare systems have also hindered patient access to medicines.”

After nearly four decades in the industry, Yoshihiko’s passion for the healthcare space is still driven by the patients and their need for vital medications. “Wherever I go, I take every opportunity to stress that every employee’s job at Astellas is related to patient health,” he says.

“They must always keep this top of mind in everything they do. Hearing amazing stories from patients who previously did not have any effective treatment options is more rewarding than anything to me, because that is when I know our efforts are making a difference.”

‘Best Science, Best Talent, Best Place’

Over the past decade, Astellas has built a substantial pipeline in oncology, directed particularly at some of the hardest-to-treat cancers. One of its key, late-stage oncology products, gilteritinib, was granted orphan drug designation, which is for pharmaceutical agents that are developed specifically to treat rare medical conditions.

“Gilteritinib was discovered through a research collaboration with Kotobuki Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd, and Astellas has exclusive global rights to develop, manufacture and potentially commercialise the therapy,” Yoshihiko explains.

If I could change anything in our industry, it would be to find complete cures and earlier intervention to prevent diseases from progressing, or even occurring.

“We recognise that patients, caregivers, providers and others in healthcare face great challenges, and the need for medical advancements remains urgent. So, we have also taken the initiative to reshape our R&D framework based on the concept of ‘Best Science, Best Talent, Best Place’, engaging in diverse and extensive collaborations with world-leading institutes and biotechnology organisations that share our goal of bringing to market breakthrough discoveries.
We have already significantly advanced in our two newest therapeutic areas, ophthalmology and muscular diseases.”

While Yoshihiko embraces the contribution his industry has made to people’s health by improving the lives of those struck by disease, he hopes it can go further.

“If I could change anything in our industry, it would be to find complete cures and earlier intervention to prevent diseases from progressing, or even occurring. Now, with advanced science and technology, I hope we can achieve that.”