Tissue engineering in Japan could become global leader

The Royal Academy of Engineering sponsored a UK technology mission to Japan on behalf of the DTI’s International Technology Service, to investigate recent developments in tissue engineering and related advanced technologies. The Mission team, comprising a number of high-level experts visited Japan from 7 to 12 April. On 30 June, team leader Professor David Williams FREng, and the rest of the mission’s team, will outline the results of their visit at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. Several important issues will be presented that reflect the current directions of the scientific, clinical, industrial and economic practices.

The team observed that the quality of the basic science underpinning Japan’s tissue engineering programmes is impressive, especially in some of the governments own research institutes. The general economic situation prevailing in Japan is clearly a major factor in the establishment of this industry. The confidence placed in the potential for tissue engineering and associated technologies to underpin the future financial health of the country by government is acting as a major stimulus and government, at both national and prefecture level are investing very heavily in the biotechnology infrastructure.

On the basis of this investment, there are a number of world-class research facilities and local governments are keen to play a significant role in this new industry; it will, however, be a big challenge to populate these laboratories by groups of world-class scientists.

The government has also set very high targets for the emergence of new companies and new commercial initiatives, coupled with very good financial incentives. It will be interesting to see if the new companies grow at their expected rate, and whether differential policies between different cities (e.g. Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe) attract good companies.

The regulatory environment around the world related to the technologies of regenerative medicine, including tissue engineering, are in some disarray and Japan appears to be as confused as elsewhere. Although work on new guidelines and legal frameworks is in progress, these are not yet in place and uncertainty faces Japanese and overseas companies alike. Japan is currently the leading country in Asia in this area of medical technology, and indeed could become one of the global leaders in the field, but others such as China, Korea and Singapore are not far behind and a great deal depends on how fast the industry matures and whether funding from private equity and venture capital can be sustained.

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