Naoki Okamura named as next CEO of Astellas


Naoki Okamura

Kenji Yasukawa is stepping down as chief executive of Japanese pharma group Astellas, to be succeeded by Naoki Okamura – currently chief strategy officer – on 1st April.

Yasukawa is coming to the end of five years at the helm of Astellas, during which time he led the company through a tricky period punctuated by patent expiries to some of its top products, which led to its revenues bottoming out in 2020.

It is still facing challenges on the patent front – notably to pharmacologic stress agent Lexiscan (regadenoson injection), overactive bladder therapy Myrbetriq (mirabegron) and the looming loss of protection for Pfizer-partnered prostate cancer drug Xtandi (enzalutamide) from 2026 – but responsibility for handling these will now fall to Okamura.

Astellas revenues have returned to growth, rising a healthy 18% to 400 billion yen (around $3 billion) in the just-reported third-quarter period of fiscal 2022/23, with Xtandi contributing almost 180 billion yen of that total with a 25% increase.

Okamura inherits some products in the growth phase, notably Seagen-partnered bladder cancer therapy Padcev (enfortumab vedotin), which saw sales more than double in the quarter to just over 12 billion yen, and Xospata (gilteritinib) for blood cancers, which grew almost 39% to approach 13 billion yen.

Astellas said that the coming fiscal year is the right time to go after an "aggressive" acceleration in revenue growth.

"The environment surrounding the company is changing rapidly, such as increasing geopolitical risks and changes in the finances and markets of each country due to the COVID-19 crisis, but the new top management has the ability to be flexible in response to such changes," it said.

Okamura has been instrumental in driving Astellas' partnering activities – including the recent licensing of a companion drug for its Pompe disease gene therapy from Selecta Biosciences and a strategic investment in US gene therapy company Taysha – and is also an architect of the company's recent shift in R&D strategy around a "focus area."

That involves moving from a drug discovery model towards a "multifaceted" approach based on the biology of a disease, including combination therapies, digital therapeutics, and platform-based alliances, and may include partnering programmes at an earlier level - for example, even before proof of concept has been demonstrated.

Other senior management changes announced by Astellas include the appointment of Claus Zieler as chief commercial officer, while Adam Pearson will take on Okamura's chief strategy officer role.