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Iskra: creating bridges between nations through healthcare

Interview - January 22, 2024

Iskra Industry’s remarkable journey is characterized by its mission to enhance healthcare through the import and export of medicinally-effective products.

CHIN SHISEI, PRESIDENT OF ISKRA INDUSTRY CO., LTD.
DR. CHIN SHISEI | PRESIDENT OF ISKRA INDUSTRY CO., LTD.

Please could you give us a brief introduction about your company and yourself? 

Our company was established in 1960 in Tokyo. At that time, polio was an epidemic among children and we took the initiative to import a live polio vaccine from the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War era, and relations between the Soviet Union and Japan were not good. Despite the odds, we took the lead to create a bridge between the nations. We have a long history of trade with the Soviet Union and CIS countries mainly in three areas: pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and chemicals. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, our business scheme changed, but we have continued to trade with CIS countries till this day. Regardless of the geopolitical situation, our mission is to bridge the people through the import and export products that are effective for patients and useful to the people in Japan and other countries.

Since the late 1960s, we have focused on the efficacy of Chinese herbal medicines, and have been importing them. Our strategy is not only to import the medicines themselves, but also introduce the concepts and ideas behind traditional Chinese herbal medicines. Currently, we manufacture and market pharmaceuticals, quasi-drugs, health foods, cosmetics, and chemical products.

To briefly introduce my background, I graduated from Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine in China, completed postgraduate studies at Shaanxi University of Chinese Medicine, and worked as a doctor in China; I came to Japan in 1993, trained at the First Department of Internal Medicine, Tokyo Medical University Hospital, and received my doctorate degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Hiroshima University (2002); in 1999, I joined Is He joined Iskra Industry and became Representative Director in 2017.

Since coming to Japan, I have dedicated myself to enhance the awareness on TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine) among people. It has been a great experience and pleasure for me to be able to help many people with TCM, especially in the field of gynaecological infertility over the years.

While I was impressed by the excellence of the Japanese medical system, I had the impression that traditional herbal medicinal treatment through Kampo, herbal medicine deriving from China and nurtured in Japan, and TCM are not yet well understood. I really feel that it is very significant to promote Kampo and TCM in the Japanese medical field in Japan for wholistic treatment.

 

How is TCM different from Kampo?

Japanese traditional medicine called Kampo came from China and was first introduced to Japan in the 5th and 6th centuries. Since then, it has developed as a unique discipline within Japan. However, with the introduction of Western medicine to Japan, the status of Kampo has become significantly lower. Also, legally speaking in Japan, one can prescribe Kampo medicine with a medical license; you mentioned that the Kampo prescription rate in 2010 was about 86% and this figure has hardly changed since then. The rate may look high, however, most Japanese doctors use Kampo prescription from the perspective of Western medicine which may not draw out the best efficacy of TCM/Kampo. The basic idea of TCM/Kampo is a comprehensive approach. However, doctors often don’t have an understanding of this comprehensive approach and prescribes Kampo herbal medicines like a western medicine.

In China, on the other hand, doctors specializing in Chinese medicine who have received extensive training under the TCM educating system prescribe Chinese herbal medicines. In China, TCM doctors also have knowledge of Western medicine and often combine Western and TCM for optimal treatment. In Japan, Western medicine is dominant, but I do see the rise of interest in TCM among Japanese doctors, and more doctors are trying to use herbal medicine based on their understanding of TCM.

Another difference between Japanese and Chinese herbal medicines is that in Japan, the types of kampo formulas approved by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is limited. In China, on the other hand, physicians are free to create their own herbal medicine formulas, and there are far more herbal medicines in formulation than in Japan, and new herbal medicines are being developed.

In Japan, the introduction of scientific techniques and management systems for Kampo production have contributed to the modernization of herbal medicine, as it requires standardization of production according to GMP regulations. Recently, these standardized over-the-counter herbal medicine packs have also become popular in China, improving the overall quality of the herbal medicine in the market.

 

One of the major criticisms of the Japanese healthcare sector is the slow regulatory process, which takes an average of three to five years compared to Europe and the United States. However, since 2012, with the introduction of the "SAKIGAKE system" for regenerative medicine products and the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Law (PMD Law), some changes can be seen. Quasi-drugs are not regulated, but your company also provides regulated pharmaceuticals. From your company's perspective, how do you evaluate the Japanese regulatory framework and what improvements would you like to see?

Procedures for pharmaceutical products vary from country to country, so we have to follow the regulations of each country. However, we are not producing a completely new drug. Rather, our specialty is herbal medicines, which are considered more of a traditional type of medicine, and with the introduction of the PMD law, regulations have been imposed on herbal medicines, requiring the same manufacturing, storage, and delivery standards as Western medicines. This move toward stricter regulations is necessary for standardization and quality control. However, we feel that this is a very high hurdle to overcome in terms of the actual situation of Kampo medicine manufacturing.

In Japan, it is considered that herbal medicine is a bit old style and not something that evolves over time. However, in China, new types of herbal medicine have been constantly developed and proven to be effective. Japan's regulatory framework requires existing solid examples, and unless there is a precedent, developing or innovating new formula is difficult. The difference between Western and Chinese medicine is that Western medicines have specific substances or ingredients whose efficacy is well known. For example, in the treatment of diabetes, there are certain substances that are known to be effective. From the perspective of TCM/Kampo, however, people have different body types and physiques, even if they have the same disease, such as diabetes. Different types of herbal medicines are administered according to a person's body. Chinese herbal medicine is a combination of ingredients. This combination is very complex, and it is sometimes difficult to know exactly which substances or elements are most effective. Overall, TCM/Kampo is effective in treating diseases and disorders, and the same medicine can be used to treat multiple diseases and disorders, for example, diabetes and hypertension. These different types of approaches are not easily understood in a society dominated by Western medicine. This is understandable since the standards are based on Western medicine and Western pharmaceuticals. However, the approach of Kampo and TCM is completely different. If the ideas of Kampo and TCM are more widely understood, a new synergistic medical development may be made. That would be ideal.

Another aspect is the fact that Japan is rapidly aging. As a result, the burden of social security costs is increasing. As a traditional Chinese medicine business enterprise focused on public health, how are you helping to alleviate the pressure on the social security system and reach the goal of being more preventive?

First of all, we do more than just provide products. We also offer solutions and ideas to alleviate health problems. The keyword self-medication has been used recently. As a pharmaceutical company, we believe it is very important to spread understanding and awareness of how to utilize the products we offer. In order to properly take medicine and ensure its effectiveness, one must understand one's own body. Chinese medicine has the concept of preventive medicine. By taking medicines, you prevent yourself from getting sick. TCM analyzes your body and diagnoses what weaknesses and tendencies your constitution has. It then suggests lifestyle modifications and types of medicines to prevent illness. In addition, TCM has the concept that "food is medicine. It is important to take a diet suited to one's constitution. By doing so, you can maintain balance and prevent illness.

Iskra Kangen-karyu is one of our original products developed 30 years ago. According to the indications approved by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, it is indicated for the treatment of headache, stiff shoulders, dizziness, and palpitations in people of middle age or those prone to hypertension. In TCM, there is a concept of "Oketsu (stagnant blood)“, which refers to a condition in which blood circulation is impaired due to problems with blood and blood vessels. It is expected to improve problems caused by Oketsu. Aging of blood vessels is also related to Oketsu. After 30 years since its launch, the product is now used by many people and has gained a good reputation. With the cooperation of universities and medical institutions, pharmacological research and clinical trials have been conducted, and various evidences have been accumulated.

 

We contribute to the alleviation of so-called lifestyle-related diseases by offering preventive methods. We offer a variety of products, because what can be taken depends on one's constitution. We not only provide products, but also ideas and solutions to alleviate the person's problems. The best way to do this is to consult an expert in Kampo and TCM.



Do you need to adapt your products for the international market?

Currently, our core business is to import Chinese herbal medicines manufactured mainly in China and apply them to meet the needs of Japanese consumers. High quality and high performance are very important to Japanese standards. If we were to expand overseas, we would certainly have to comply with local regulations. That would be an essential requirement. However, doing business under local regulations is not something we can do alone. We have to find local partners and distributors. We have already established our brand in the Japanese market, which is more demanding in terms of quality, and we would like to take our products to China and other countries to spread the word that Chinese herbal medicine is a viable and important option.

 

Which other countries are you interested in?

We are not considering any particular country at this time, as it takes time to research local regulations. However, Southeast Asia, with its large Chinese population, would be a good first step, as there is already a good understanding of Chinese medicine there. My long-term dream is to expand into Europe and America and offer Chinese medicine to the markets in those regions.

I have a friend who does acupuncture in Europe and the US and is interested in promoting TCM as an alternative medicine. However, although there is a need in those markets, it is quite a hurdle to overcome the local regulations.

 

Please tell us what products you are currently importing and whether there are any new products you would like to procure from overseas and develop sales channels in Japan?

We import rare gases from CIS countries, especially those used in the semiconductor field. We have a long relationship with these countries and have introduced their natural resources and high-tech products to the Japanese market as a trader. We would like to continue to find highly unique products from CIS countries and China, especially those related to health, and offer them to the Japanese people.

 

In terms of R&D, Japan is known for its ability to develop innovative new products. Although not a core part of your company's business, you were the first in Japan to launch a bacteriophage-based serum, Iskraphage. Could you tell us today how this product compares favorably to similar products in the past, and what new types of products you are currently developing?

As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to develop new Kampo medicines within the Japanese framework. However, we are currently conducting market research to determine what needs exist and what approaches can be taken, whether it be for Kampo medicines, quasi-drugs, health foods, or cosmetics. Our approach is to focus on current and future market needs. For example, more and more women are having difficulty conceiving and suffering from menopause these days. We have developed a health food product that combines several herbs to address such concerns. We are trying to create new solutions to alleviate the increasing number of health concerns and disorders.

Iskraphage was developed as part of our cosmetics business. Iskraphage uses bacteriophages. We are working with universities and hospitals to study its efficacy. Currently, we are applying them to cosmetics. But in the near future, we hope to expand the application of phage to other areas.

Are there any areas you would like to focus on as a new business?

What I would like to challenge as a new business category is popularization of Yakuzen (medicinal cuisine) for health care. I would like to propose this to people who want to improve their ailments, such as diabetic patients and women who are pregnant or about to give birth. We believe that by consuming specific foods according to individual constitutions and using herbal medicines, one can maintain good health.

If we were to re-interview you on the last day of your presidency, do you have any personal goals or ambitions that you would like to achieve by that date?

Thank you for your very good question. Our company has a history of over 63 years. Successive generations have successfully passed the company on to us. I want to build on the company's traditions and pass them on to the next generation. My objective as president is not only to grow the company, but rather to focus on making it stronger so that we can overcome challenges and problems that may arise in the future. In order to make the company stronger, it is important to have core values. As a pharmaceutical company, our core value is to provide the best solutions with respect to healthcare based on traditional Chinese medicine. At the same time, as a trading company, we are a company with tradition and history in trade with CIS countries and China, and we intend to continue to enhance our trading capabilities based on our expertise and relationships with these countries. To be sustainable, it is very important to respond flexibly to the ever-changing needs of society.

Our business is focused on TCM as part of health care and wellness. Recently, we have extended the concept of TCM to pets as well, considering dogs and cats as members of the family. We are the first in Japan to create a method of applying TCM to pets that is backed by solid theory.

Our goal for the future is to strengthen our business pillars of healthcare and trading. In the past, it was enough to simply import and deliver products. Now, however, we must add unique value to our products. Our bacteriophages were born from the idea of such value-added products. If I have the opportunity to be interviewed by you again in the future, I hope to be able to tell you then that traditional Chinese medicine has been recognized and utilized by more people in Japan, that we have contributed to their health, and that they appreciate us and our products. I want to make the company strong, vibrant, and sustainable, and to be flexible enough to respond to the ever-changing needs of society. That is my goal for the future.

 

 

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