COVER STORY:Life Innovation
A Society of Health and Longevity
The Japanese government has set out a policy of promoting “life innovation.” The Japan Journal’s Sawaji Osamu asked Dr. Tasuku Honjo, executive member of the Council for Science and Technology Policy, about the initiative.
Dr. Tasuku Honjo
The key element of the New Growth Strategy approved in 2009 is something called “life innovation,” referring to innovation in the health and nursing care sectors. The government has set itself the target of creating a new “life innovation” market worth 45 trillion yen by the year 2020, creating somewhere in the region of 2.8 million new jobs.
“To ensure sustainable growth, we are going to have to draw on all of Japan’s intellectual assets. I believe that we need to broaden our horizons to include other Asian countries and the rest of the world and promote research and development in the field of life sciences, including technology such as pharmaceuticals and nursing care robots,” explains Dr. Tasuku Honjo, one of the main players in terms of science and technology policy in Japan.
Three Key Objectives
Following on from the approval of the New Growth Strategy, in June the Council for Science and Technology Policy unveiled its Action Plan on Key Science and Technology Policies, comprehensively mapping out science and technology policies on a government-wide basis.
Concerning “life innovation,” the action plan focuses on three key objectives to be given priority from the start of the next fiscal year.
The first of these objectives is to “promote preventive medicine in order to reduce the prevalence of serious conditions.” The aim is to analyze the causes and pathogenic mechanisms behind conditions that leave patients with disabilities or requiring nursing care, such as Alzheimer’s, strokes and heart attacks, so as to help prevent such conditions from occurring in the first place.
One of the specific courses of action mapped out in this area is “genetic cohort research.”
“Genetic cohort research will involve a long term ongoing study of the nation’s health and is aimed at clarifying the causal relationship between conditions and factors such as people’s habits, living environments and genes. That would make it possible to provide individuals with specific medical advice to help prevent conditions from arising,” explains Honjo. “The plan is to enroll 100,000 people in the study and monitor them for a period of twenty years. Although research is expected to cost roughly 100 billion yen over the course of the twenty years (5 billion yen a year), it has the potential to reduce medical costs by 500 billion yen or more in the future.”
In addition to genetic cohort research, the Council has also set out plans to computerize medical information held by individual hospitals and establish an IT network in order to efficiently consolidate medical information. By combining treatment data on around one million patients, the aim is to use medical information, including details such as the effects of treatments and the side effects of drugs, to help develop new methods of treatment and contribute to research.
The second key objective is to “improve recovery rates through the development of innovative methods of diagnosis and treatment.” In terms of specifics, the main aim is to improve recovery rates for conditions that often tend to be fatal at present, including pancreatic cancer, liver cancer and lung cancer. Tackling such conditions will be a case of developing biomarkers to enable early diagnosis, developing new drugs to prevent metastasis and stop cancer from spreading, and developing less invasive methods of treatment.
The third key objective is to “harness science and technology to help the elderly and disabled lead more independent lives.” The aim is to develop nursing care equipment that the elderly and disabled can use easily and safely and that will provide support for caregivers.
“If we continue to work on the development of robots to help people live their everyday lives, it will help those receiving nursing care to live more independently and ease the strain on caregivers. It would also help solve the problem of caregivers suffering from health problems themselves due to excessive strain,” explains Honjo. “Although there are already commercially available robots, they are very expensive and still have various usability issues. With the government providing financial support for joint research between universities, research institutes and private companies, we have set ourselves the target of paving the way for a robot that anyone can use within the next five years.”
Backing for Young Researchers
Another program, now underway, is the Funding Program for Next-Generation World-Leading Researchers, the aim of which is to provide support for female researchers and young researchers carrying out research relating to “green innovation” or “life innovation.” There are plans to distribute a total of 50 billion yen in funding between approximately 300 researchers over the course of four years. Research projects are currently in the process of being screened. “The program will not necessarily be focused on short-term development,” explains Honjo. “Research results produced by young researchers participating in the program could well pave the way in ten or twenty years’ time.”