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Innate Immune Regulation, Drug Discovery Research Accelerator Venture Unit Innovation Leader Azusa Sugiyama

To deliver value to the world with my own hands

My ambition to “deliver something valuable to the world” drove me to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical field. During my undergraduate degree, I became fascinated with cerebral function research and as a result, majored in behavioral pharmacology. While doing research in my doctorate program, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to remain in academia as a postdoc or take up new challenges in a company. It was then that I just happened to discover a unique recruitment program for newly graduating university students by a pharmaceutical company called Astellas. This recruitment program for researchers was called Drug discovery Innovator Selection Camp (DISC)*; the 4th DISC, in which I participated, it was a drug discovery research-like examination where you had to propose a drug discovery theme and work to improve the proposal with advice from Astellas’ researchers. As I moved along in the company’s recruitment process, I realized the excitement of drug discovery research and felt that I could grow my potential as a drug discovery researcher here at Astellas.

By working actively and continually taking up new challenges, I was given the opportunity to work abroad in my third year at Astellas

After I joined Astellas, I was assigned to a team specializing in neuroscience research, which is my area of expertise. In my first year at the company, I did research on pain, and in my second year, I focused on central nervous system diseases. Then, in my third year, I was transferred to the Astellas Research Institute in San Diego, USA to do neuroscience research. At that time, the Astellas Research Institute had just been relocated from Chicago and was looking for an energetic and young researcher with high potential. My strong work ethic and eagerness to contribute wherever I could probably helped with me being offered the position, and of course I welcomed the opportunity. San Diego is like a mecca of research, as there is a plethora of research institutions with various research fields, and I had always wanted to visit the area ever since I was an undergraduate. Understandably, I was a little apprehensive about the move, but my excitement to work in the heart of cutting-edge research and my expectations for personal growth outweighed my anxiety.

At the Institute, I experienced drug discovery research using genetically modified animals and the American way of drug discovery theme proposal and conducting research, among many other new experiences. I have also been able to expand my professional network with local researchers with diverse backgrounds, which is a great asset to me as a drug discovery researcher. Through working abroad, I learned to appreciate different perspectives, and my ability to clearly express my own opinions has greatly improved.

The position in San Diego was offered to me during my second year at Astellas, but the members of Human Resources ensured that I had enough time to prepare and assisted me to alleviate any worries I had and to minimize any inconveniences. The members I worked with in San Diego were also always caring, which was another reason why I felt so comfortable working there. It was a valuable experience not just from a business perspective, but I also had the opportunity to learn about the local culture there and meet new people, which expanded my view of the world.

Following the three years of working abroad, I was offered a position at Virtual Venture Unit Microglia, which conducts research focusing on microglia, the cells responsible for immune defense in the brain. After careful consideration, I decided to take this opportunity and expand my career outside the neuroscience field, my area of expertise. Microglia, which control the cerebral immune system, are closely related to psychiatric diseases as well. At that time, the theory that cerebral neuroinflammation caused psychiatric diseases was new, and the idea of doing research in this field was very attractive for continuing my professional development.

Currently, I work as the Innovation Leader of flagship programs in the new division called Innate Immune Regulation, Drug Discovery Research Accelerator Venture Unit. This new Unit includes the Unit I used to belong to, and it specializes in drug discovery research in the innate immune field. At Astellas, we have many research themes that focus on innate immune targets other than microglia, and this Unit also consolidates such research themes.

In traditional drug discovery research, for example, if the modality is a small molecule compound, information on the compounds that bind to the target is readily available, and a new drug is usually discovered by synthesizing and developing compound structures based on that information. However, the target we are currently exploring lacks such information and we are developing a new drug without that aid, so we must refer to clinical samples or the latest academic reports to establish a system for evaluation by ourselves. Furthermore, with the recent changes in demands of drug discovery research and technological innovation, we need to consider the latest data from fields outside our own expertise, which imposes further difficulty upon our research. Because it involves innovative scientific technology, you need to not only pave your own new path but also have the capability to explain it to the stakeholders so that they can understand. My job demands a high level of skill such as logical thinking, decision-making, autonomy, team building, and networking, but with all of its demands it is equally rewarding.

Every process of drug discovery research is very challenging in our research themes, but my team members always lend their support and we are able to confront the difficulties together with endurance and enthusiasm. My current job, where I can tackle difficulties with such wonderful people, has not only improved my research and management capabilities but also helped me to develop individually and interpersonally, so it has turned out to be a wonderful experience for me.

The foundation of my way of living: “sharpen and study”

To respond to medical demands that change rapidly, Astellas encourages its employees to constantly explore new strategies and disease areas. I think this is evident by the fact that my colleagues frequently ask me “is that really cutting-edge?” about my research. As working in drug discovery research requires flexibility in mindset and responsiveness, I find it appealing that Astellas offers me such a working environment where I can further my experience.

In Japanese, “research” is written by combining the characters for “sharpen and study”. I have always cherished and wished to pursue further growth while proactively paving a new path throughout my life, which I have found repeatedly in my current job. I think drug discovery research especially is a field in which you can deliver new value and higher quality of life to those who suffer from diseases. Astellas’ raison d’être of “contributing to the health of people around the world through provision of innovative and reliable pharmaceutical products” also overlaps with my calling to create something valuable for the world. I will continue to tackle unsolved problems with my diverse and wonderful colleagues so that we can provide many valuable drugs to our patients to ultimately make their lives better.

* For current selection method, please refer to the "Selection Method" page

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