UPDATE : Sunday, January 26, 2020
Research Centered Hospitals of Korea: “Numbers Do Not Matter”Interview with Bang Young-joo, SNUH professor
  • By Nam Doo-hyun
  • Published 2017.01.31 12:26
  • Updated 2017.02.20 17:13
  • comments 0

What can Korea do to develop new, world-class drugs?

Perhaps the answer is biopharmaceuticals; a field emerging with vast potential and boasting ten domestic research-centered hospitals appointed in 2013.

While the States’ CTSA (Clinical and Translational Science Awards) — which supports various consortiums comprised of hospitals, universities and research centers — largely maintains the nation’s position as a biopharmaceutical powerhouse, it seems that Korean research-centered hospitals focused on translational research and possess the fundamental R&D strengths necessary to counter it.
Following their initial development of research support systems, the hospitals began their second stage of establishing commercial bases since early 2016.

The research hospital council, which also serves as a mode of communication between hospitals and the government, mentions that, though tangible work seems promising, there indeed exist obstacles in Korea’s ability to perform in the global market.

We spoke with Bang Young-joo, Seoul National University Hospital (SNUH)’s biomedical research director and council chairman, to learn more about the challenges Korea’s research hospitals face in expanding into the world market, and what our solutions may be.

Young Joo Bang, SNUH professor

Why do we need research-centered hospitals?

Though I’m sure it’s the same with other industries, the field of bio requires that we are up-to-date with the latest knowledge. And the only way we can obtain these new ideas is through academia. The industry is constantly obtaining new ideas from academia, and this is because researchers are doing very advanced research. While universities perform basic research, hospitals’ work is practically patient treatment. This, precisely, is translational research. The reason it is so prominent in our hospitals is that there are patients whom they can understand. There is also an unmet need for new remedies and diagnoses in hospitals.

Even the American pharmaceutical industry is beginning to center itself within hospitals, and the NIH agrees that they need a central hospital that can develop new innovative medicines. That is what research-centered hospitals are for. Their bioclusters are ultimately centers of various enterprises and venture capitals.

Well, Korea is also developing its own cluster with government support.

In Boston, the cluster developed quite organically through the Harvard University Hospital, which was only possible because industries were constantly chasing down new knowledge and technologies coming out of the university. But how can that work for us, if what we’re doing is establishing clusters in places as far-off as Osong and Daegu and just trying to bring them together? The key for success in places like Boston and San Francisco lies in the quality of their universities and hospitals.

However, we are lacking in physician-scientists and clinician-scientists; meaning, we need scientists who really know about patients and medicine. We cannot effectively communicate about R&D without quality physician-scientists. Simply having people who have practiced in the past is not enough. Again, the most vital elements of research-centered hospitals is the newest and latest research in the field, not to mention experienced and knowledgeable clinician-scientists.

There is also the criticism that doctors are not interested enough in the clinical research of biosimilars.

Even some biosimilar developers have raised this concern. This is due to a lack of access to proper publishing opportunities. For instance, even if one were to write a report about a herceptin biosimilar, he or she wouldn’t be able to find a journal in which to publish it. Though this may be beneficial from the company’s perspective — allowing for quick, effective clinical trials and sales — it is absolutely counterproductive for doctors. If provided the option to publish a prominent study on another topic, what kind of doctor would choose to research a biosimilar with no formidable platform in which to share it?

The demand for biosimilar research will come from hospitals looking to expand their clinical research infrastructure. For instance, in the case of a large local hospital: despite their having great professors, they have far less than those in Seoul, and they ultimately end up confronting the need to further develop their research infrastructures. And who can implement this? Precisely the industries that I have said we need so desperately. If companies are to collaborate in building quality infrastructure and educating researchers, the demand will come.

People also claim that doctors themselves need to enter the industry in order for it to grow.

We primarily have to consider whether domestic pharmaceutical companies have the capacity to accept doctors. There is a particular company that doesn’t even have one research-centered doctor yet. If they hire doctors under good conditions, of course doctors would be willing to work with them. But this is not yet the case. I don’t know about fields like marketing, but for R&D it’s the sad reality that there are not yet any domestic companies that a well-accomplished doctor would be willing to join.

How can we foster more clinical-scientists?

It is vital that doctors have scientific skills as well – just because you are a doctor does not mean that you are qualified in science. And not only do we need clinical-scientists, but we also need to provide medical education to people who are not doctors. In the past I’ve suggested an open-setting graduate school, where bio students, for instance, could study medicine. In the States, companies hire plenty of non-doctors who can offer significant medical insights. Of course, to develop fully comprehensive medical knowledge requires medical school and even internships, but this is not what we are concerned about: we simply need people who can conduct R&D.

How do we establish research-based hospitals in a time when we are lacking in clinical-scientists?

The States have extremely many top hospitals and clinical-scientists, but the number is quite few in Korea. Following in their footsteps, we may develop an American-like model of venture miniclusters, which are concentrated at a few quality hospitals, as opposed to regional clusters. Seoul National University Hospital currently has two ventures, and though we would like to take in more, we are limited space-wise. If the government or the city of Seoul were to provide administrative support — such as tax benefits — for bioventures to be established in areas around Daehak-ro(near SNUH), not only would venture capitals or pharmaceutical representatives have more incentives to visit frequently, but we’d be able to develop a cluster that works more intimately with hospitals.

10 research-based hospitals have been appointed thus far; do you see this as a reasonable number?

The important thing is developing new medicines and medical equipment. No matter what hospital, it needs the time and money necessary to increase its capacity. In other words, quantity is not important; rather, we need high standards in terms of what we provide them. Sure, lowering our standards may equip us to help a greater number of hospitals, but we would only have to put in more effort in the long run.

We mustn’t forget that in a global market, we are up against huge competitors like the United States and England. As such, though we do of course have to gather cutting-edge research, we also have to keep our standards high. I personally believe we need an absolute standard for evaluations. If we uphold an absolute standard, the number of hospitals becomes irrelevant. Currently we may have 10, but with competition, the truly quality ones will survive.

Open innovation is also being emphasized in conversation about research hospitals.
You could say that research hospitals exist within the greater picture of open innovation. In fact, they are probably the most important factor of open innovation, the foundation of which is an open mind. Not trying to make others change their minds, but taking the initiative to change yours first. As much as leadership is a vital component of such innovation, CEOs need to be particularly open-minded. Things like education and social standing become irrelevant if you can do that.

What’s the ultimate goal of research hospitals?

The ultimate goal is to increase our capacity for research on a national level and create new drugs or medical technology to improve the standard of living in our country.


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