Singapore pushing to dominate translational research in Asia

By Kirsty Barnes

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Research, Medical research, Singapore

Singapore's Economic Development Board has been taking strides over
the past year to further its biomedical sciences industry and vie
for global attention amidst the other Asia Pacific players,
particularly in the field of translational research.

A year ago the country completed the first in a three-phase biomedical science (BMS) initiative, and is currently pushing forward with the S$1.4bn second phase. Under this initiative, Singapore has been investing heavily in its biomedical sciences industry over the last five years, building up infrastructure, establishing cutting-edge technologies and developing manpower. As part of the second phase of the BMS programme, the main focus is to set up infrastructure especially for translational research, such as imaging, animal testing and early-stage clinical trial facilities, as this is a field that Singapore believes it has its strengths and offers the biggest potential for market growth. As an example, a flagship programme in gastric cancer has recently been launched by the country. Gastric cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide and the fourth most common cancer in East Asian males. The programme is aimed at helping improve the early detection of gastric cancer by discovering biomarkers at an early stage and developing classifications that can robustly predict disease behaviour and treatment response. In addition, a multidisciplinary neuroscience research programme that spans basic science all the way to clinical research has also been introduced that links the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) research institutes to tertiary institutions, and medical schools. A*STAR is Singapore's lead agency for fostering world-class scientific research and nurturing talent and in 2000, it added biomedical capabilities to its research portfolio. Meanwhile, the country is also investing heavily in training clinical scientists and putting in place 'lab to clinic' research programmes in oncology, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, infectious diseases and optical medicine. As part of this, the Ministry of Health and A*STAR have just announced two programmes to further boost the pool of clinician scientists and translational researchers in Singapore. The two initiatives are the Singapore Translational Research Investigator Award (STaR) and the Clinician Scientist Award (CSA), which are targeted at building up a talent pool to bridge the gap between basic research and clinical applications. The newly-introduced StaR award aims to recruit and nurture world-class clinician scientists to undertake cutting edge translational and clinical research in Singapore. The award is for a period of five years and includes funding for salary, an annual budget for research support and a one-time start up grant. Meanwhile, the CSA is a revamped version of the original Clinician Scientist Investigator (CSI) Award Scheme that was introduced in 2004. The updated programme now funds full salary support along with a competitive research grant at two levels - senior investigator and investigator, with the aim of enabling them to carry out "internationally competitive and impactful​" translational and clinical research. The award is for five years for Senior Investigators and three years for Investigators. With a population of 4m, the smaller-scale field of translational research is where Singapore believes it can carve out its niche, as opposed to trying to compete with the likes of China - with its vast population of 1.2bn - for large-scale clinical trials. "Over the next five years we hope to be number one in the region for translational research​," Keat-Chuan Yeoh, executive director of Biomedical Sciences for the Singapore Economic Development Board told Outsourcing-Pharma.com. "Singapore has the benefits of English language proficiency, a varied mix of patient populations, good hospitals and doctors, strong intellectual property regulation, and clear and transparent guidelines for research, unlike some other countries in the Asia-Pacific​," he said. In terms of cost, Yeoh conceded that Singapore is "not the cheapest​" location in the region, but when it comes to translational research, cost savings are not necessarily what companies are looking for- "credibility is more important​". Meanwhile, according to Yeoh, Singapore has made "significant achievements​" in the last 12 months in its biotechnology industry, which has been witnessing "rapid growth​" over the past five years. The sector now employs 4,000 people and this figure is expected to grow by 50 per cent to 6,000 by 2010. In terms of employment growth over half of this is being witnessed in the area of biologics, said Yeoh. "The Asia-Pacific is one of the few regions in the world to deal with large amounts of biologic drug production​" and Singapore is one of the more dominant countries in this regard. According to a recent report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the main reason for that is the development of R&D biocentres and campuses, and facilities which have recently been put in place: "The government has been very friendly in terms of investment​". In Singapore, several new biologics facilities are under construction on behalf of multinational pharma companies. Biologics contract manufacturer Lonza entered Singapore to set up an 80,000L capacity mammalian facility for commercial scale manufacturing. Biotech giant genentech snapped up all the capacity at Lonza's facility and now Lonza is building a new plant of the same capacity to fill further demand. At the same time Genentech is also building its own microbial plant. In addition, last October announced plans for a $700m biotechnology facility, to be built alongside the company's new solid-dose manufacturing plant on the island. The project, which is expected to be completed by 2012, represents Singapore's largest ever vertically integrated investment and the most Novartis has ever splashed out on a single manufacturing facility. Meanwhile, GSK Biologicals is in the midst of building a new S$300m vaccines facility and when it becomes fully operational in 2009, it will be the first large scale bulk biologics manufacturing plant in Singapore. In March the company also opened a new medicinal chemistry lab in one of the region's biomedical hubs, Biopolis, having invested S$20m in the new operations. In terms of Biopolis, which is a centre dedicated to biomedical R&D activities, Yeoh said that the original site is now full, with all the space being occupied by 25 domestic and international companies, including GSK who is focusing on neuroscience, Novartis who is researching tropical diseases, and Eli Lilly who is investigating metabolic diseases and cancer. The idea behind Biopolis is that the on-site facilities are shared by around 2,000 scientists across all the businesses operating there, creating economies of scale. Due to the popularity of the centre, 400,000 sq.ft of new laboratory space is being created and will be ready to be occupied some time next year. Meanwhile, Yeoh pointed to a number of other new business gains that Singapore has attracted recently. Eisai opened a Regional Clinical Research Centre in the country so that they can oversee their Asia-Pacific run trials from this location - becoming the first Japanese pharmaceutical company to do so. This year it has been relocating its UK-based clinical trials to this new location. Affymetrix has set up its first GeneChip Probe Array manufacturing facility outside US. Over the past year the operation has been ramped up to over 110 employees. Moreover, Schering-Plough has recently invested in a trigeneration unit for its plant, following in the footsteps of Pfizer. The S$18 million unit will help the company reduce its energy consumption at the Singapore plant substantially from 12.5 MW currently to 9.3 MW annually, and reduce its annual carbon oxide emission by 24 per cent. It does so by generating electricity, steam and chilled water from a singe fuel (natural gas). This unit is due for completion this month. Meanwhile, earlier this year a large undisclosed pharmaceutical company has just initiated an expansion of its Phase I activities in Singapore, although Yeoh said that the firm was "not comfortable with disseminating any information regarding this to the international media​". "Over the next few months we will see others​", said Yeoh, commenting on the new business gains.

Related topics: Preclinical Research, Preclinical

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