Interviews & Opinions


The effects of the war in Ukraine on drug-discovery activities: Noriaki Hirayama, visiting professor at the School of Medicine, Tokai University


Are we okay with a Japan that has no materials or technology? Health risks caused by relying on other countries

Russia's invasion of Ukraine began suddenly on February 24 and is still ongoing, with no signs of ending. Lots of media outlets are talking about the effects of the war in Ukraine on stable supplies of energy and food in Japan. However, no-one is really reporting how this war might have an effect on our future health problems. In modern medicine, the existence of pharmaceuticals is vital. If a disease for which there is no specific drug becomes prevalent, it causes great social panic - lots of people experienced this firsthand during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supplies becoming hard to get in Japan

Researching and developing a drug from scratch is known as drug discovery. Most drugs are organic molecules, and their molecular weight falls under the category of small molecules less than around 500. The molecular weight of steroid drugs, for example, is around 300-500.

In fact, of the drug molecules in use today, around 85% are drug molecules with a low molecular weight, and currently, many drug-discovery activities see researchers engage in the discovery and production of drug molecules in the low molecular weight region. In order to discover and produce drug molecules with low molecular weight that are effective and have few side effects, it is necessary to explore molecules with the potential to be drug molecules from among a vast number of organic molecules in the drug-discovery field. In other words, researchers have to actually obtain these molecules, and ascertain whether they have the ability to cure a disease through experiments. The number of molecules with potential that can be assessed in initial-stage research is a key point in making drug-discovery activities a success.

In the past, many Japanese companies used in-house chemical synthesis and extraction from the natural world to obtain these molecules for exploration. However, some time ago, a very large number of companies came to rely on foreign firms to provide these molecules, mainly for economic reasons. Unfortunately, there are now very few companies in Japan that are able to provide molecules for exploration.

Inhibiting drug-discovery activities around the world

Right now, 80% of the organic molecules used for drug molecule exploration are provided by Ukrainian and Russian companies (Enamine, Life Chemicals and ChemDiv are typical examples of these companies). As the war in Ukraine intensifies, Western companies are avoiding supplies from Russian companies, and the volume of molecules for exploration provided for the drug-discovery field has dropped from one third to one tenth, which is having a major effect on global drug-discovery activities. Ukrainian companies are trying to make up the shortfall with support from China, India and Europe, but delayed delivery times and higher prices are evident.

In fact, over the last six months, we have repeatedly experienced the progress of our research activities being greatly inhibited, at least when it comes the drug-discovery research we are carrying out in universities. Unfortunately, Japanese companies are not moving to fill this gap. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the likelihood of the Ukrainian production system for drug-discovery exploration molecules immediately returning to its pre-war condition is low, and if we assume that we can't accept supplies from Russian companies, we can expect these effects to drag on for some time.

Some people believe there is a possibility that the initial processes of drug-discovery activities may be delayed by at least six months to a year due to the effects of the war. If this is the case, the delay will be hard to bear, and may even feel hopeless for many patients in dire need of treatment. In other words, if the war in Ukraine is dragged out any longer, global drug-discovery activities will be even more inhibited, and we cannot deny the possibility that many pharmaceutical development seeds that should enable us to improve our health will be stiffled.

Preparation for unexpected circumstances

It is common knowledge that Japan is now becoming unable to self-supply a variety of materials needed for everyday life - this isn't just limited to pharmaceuticals. The root of this is likely the idea that we can buy anything we don't have from overseas. However, the sudden changes in the world situation and the weakening of the yen due to the war and the pandemic may, at any time, cause a situation in which we can no longer make purchases from overseas. I'm sure that many Japanese people who believed Japan to be a developed nation were surprised that vaccines and drugs cannot be made in Japan and also felt a sense of disappointment. And what is even more disappointing is that 'in Japan, we are progressively facing a situation in which we cannot accomplish this even if we want to' - in other words, our technology is declining.

Science is logical, but it is difficult to obtain optimal results just with information written in textbooks and manuals. Technology and know-how are vital. However, it is difficult to obtain technology in a short time period, and, as was the case with COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, if anything, time is limited if we face an unexpected attack. Therefore, we must always be prepared to respond to unexpected circumstances in adaptable ways. In other words, in order to 'ensure Japan is a nation that can at least support itself' during any environmental chaos (not just war and infectious disease), we need to deliberately and systematically maintain science and technology levels within the country, and also to improve them; it's likely that continuous social investment will be needed to accomplish this.


Born in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1948.
He has been a doctoral researcher at Imperial College (the University of London), a principal investigator at Kyowa Hakko Engineering's Tokyo Laboratory, a professor of the Department of Bioengineering, School of Engineering, Tokai University, a professor of the Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, Tokai University, and a project professor of the Institute of Advanced Biosciences, Tokai University; he has been a visiting professor at the School of Medicine, Tokai University since 2022.
He is a Doctor of Science.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd.( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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