Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Catherine Ohura

Newly-appointed CEO of the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund Ms. Catherine Ohura outlines her plans and priorities for the organization.

Catherine Ohura
Global Health Innovative Technology Fund

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AsianScientist (Sep. 27, 2019) – Amid growing health challenges around the world, sustained funding for research and development (R&D) is more important now than ever before. Besides the significant costs of discovering new drugs and inventing novel diagnostic tools, resources are also needed to make sure these solutions are accessible to the populations that need them most.

The Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund was thus established in 2013 to invest in and manage a portfolio of international partnerships with the potential to address global health problems. Dr. BT Slingsby, founding CEO of the GHIT Fund, was instrumental in operationalizing the fund and growing it by over three-fold by 2018. After six years at the helm, Slingsby announced in September 2018 that he would be stepping down, and the reins of leadership at the GHIT Fund have been handed to Ms. Catherine Ohura.

Ohura is no stranger to the health innovation space, having served as the Executive Officer and Unit Head of Japan Commercial Operations & Customer Experience at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) K.K. prior to her current appointment as GHIT Fund CEO. Over the course of her career, she has amassed deep expertise in clinical development, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, pharmacovigilance and project management.

In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Ohura discussed her views on global health and shared her ambitions for the GHIT Fund during her tenure.

  1. What makes the GHIT Fund uniquely placed to impact global health?
  2. The initiation of the GHIT Fund itself in 2013 was really an outstanding accomplishment. Since then, we have funded up to US$170 million dollars in some 80 projects, of which 44 projects are ongoing at this time. The structure of the GHIT Fund is very unique—50 percent is funded by the Japanese government, 25 percent by pharmaceutical companies and 25 percent by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. So that combination creates a structure for partnership and collaboration, and that is a key accomplishment, in my mind.

    But it’s not just about this great concept and great collaborations; it’s really about getting projects funded and actually getting products out to help patients. If you think about the normal life cycle of drug development in general, you’re normally looking at a ten-year cycle. But in just six or seven years, we already have two assets that are in the late stages of development and will likely reach patients in a couple of years.

  3. Could you please share more about these two assets that are close to clinical use?
  4. The one closest to clinical use is a product called TB-LAM, a highly sensitive and rapid point-of-care test to diagnose tuberculosis (TB) from urine. That was a project co-led by Japanese company Fujifilm and Swiss non-profit FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics). The diagnostic kit received CE marking in December 2018, and the next milestone we’re looking at is World Health Organization (WHO) endorsement so that we can use it in the field.

    The other product is a pediatric version of praziquantel, a drug for treating schistosomiasis (parasitic flatworm infection of the urinary tract or intestines). This product was also developed in cross-border collaboration—there are actually eight collaborators in the consortium. On the Japanese side we have Astellas, and on the non-Japanese side we have Merck working on this project. This product is in phase-3 clinical trials at the moment.

  5. What are some critical considerations for getting late-stage products to patients, especially those in low- and middle-income countries?
  6. We are working actively on access, basically the launch strategy, if you will, in pharma lingo. Basically, how are we going to launch this? What’s the pricing going to be? What are the target countries and patients?

    There’s a saying we have at the GHIT Fund that I really love because it just makes a lot of sense. The quote goes: “Medicine is invaluable with access, valueless without it.” I cannot agree with this more, because we can get all the products approved, but if it doesn’t get to the patients, those products really don’t mean much.

    But access is complex. It requires thinking about the context of local communities, the pricing, the partners we can work with, and so on. The GHIT Fund has just hired a Head of Access and Delivery a few months ago, so that emphasizes our commitment to solving these issues.

    We have two broad approaches to tackle access and delivery. One is a top-down approach, which is more general, involving high-level discussions already taking place with the government of Japan and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It’s about working with global entities to shape policy and create more efficient pathways for access to new treatments and diagnostics.

    The other strategy is bottom-up, which is more case study-driven and specific to a particular product. For example, the pathways that we implement to promote access to a specific product could be archived in a database of access and delivery strategies. Then any other organization will be able to look at those pathways and best practices that have worked, and they can follow suit instead of starting from scratch.

  7. What are some of the trends that you observe across the broader healthcare innovation ecosystem and how do you think it will affect the GHIT Fund?
  8. Generally speaking, one trend in the entire pharmaceutical industry is that the ‘seeds’ of R&D are depleting. This situation could happen in the global health R&D arena in the future as well. However, I believe that innovative partnerships like the ones I mentioned will be able to overcome those limitations.

    We must also keep trying to uncover new mechanisms of action for drugs and pushing for new technologies to address unmet needs. 68 percent of the GHIT fund goes towards drug R&D and 25 percent is dedicated to vaccine R&D. The remaining seven percent is in diagnostics, and I feel that diagnostics is an area of great opportunity for growth. That’s because of the potential for combining different elements of science and technology to create something new and valuable.

    The TB-LAM project I highlighted is a beautiful example of that. The technology that TB-LAM relies on came from an influenza testing kit, which originated from film development technology. It had nothing to do with TB, but we were able to take that technology and make it applicable to TB, and here we are now, really close to getting this diagnostic out to the patients.

    The other thing I’ve observed is that the global health timeline has to take into account unique challenges and complexities around health systems, such as strengthening infrastructure, access in low-and middle-income countries and so on, which aren’t always the case for industry. In industry, if you take a long time to get results, you don’t exist as a business anymore, so the sense of urgency is very high.

    There is certainly incredible urgency in the global health arena as well, but the incentives are different given the fact that in many cases, target users cannot pay. Even so, I would love to see industry-like rigor and sense of urgency in terms of timelines and execution power in the global health arena as well. I can contribute to that at the GHIT Fund, but I would love for it to happen across the entire global health ecosystem. I think we’re all doing the right things, but there are some areas that could be improved.

    I think that cross-sector collaboration, and the integration of more commercialization and manufacturing expertise in the global health innovation process, will be useful. I also believe that having industry involved alongside research and academia is important—again, not just specific to the GHIT Fund, but just in general.

  9. What areas would you be focusing on for the GHIT Fund moving forward?
  10. We are continuously focusing on the three disease areas: TB, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Our commitment to funding R&D stands strong. We are also thinking about growing our engagement in diagnostics, and exploring untapped technologies and innovations inside and outside the global health arena.

  11. What do you think could be done to encourage more women to pursue senior management roles in R&D?
  12. Diversity, inclusion and women’s leadership are other areas that I would love for GHIT to focus on. GHIT happens to have a woman CEO, how does that work? How does that happen? So I want to use my own experience, and the organization’s experience, to help out. What we need to showcase are role models, and highlight pathways for young women to work through their careers to arrive at senior management roles.

    And it’s not just about women—if you look at data, currently, there are more men in decision making positions, so we definitely need to engage men in the conversation so that they understand and encourage women to be in senior management roles, not just in R&D, but in general.

    I also truly believe that the more diverse a team is, the greater the ideas generated, and the better the outcomes for a business. So it’s not just about “hey, let’s be nice to each other,” it’s about embracing diversity to achieve more, so that more patients can be helped.

    This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Catherine Ohura.
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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