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Singapore’s Biomedical Sciences Initiative – Reflections For The Future

1227_1For this edition’s Special Feature, we will take a brief look at the history of Singapore’s Biomedical Sciences (BMS) industry and speak with a few industry veterans. We will learn about the development of the local industry as seen through their eyes, as well as what they think the future may hold for the industry in Singapore.

It is not widely known but Singapore had a Ministry of Science and Technology in 1968, which led the development of science and technology policies, and was tasked to build up scientific infrastructure and manpower to promote economic growth. However, due to staffing and government budget constraints at the time, the Ministry was dissolved in 1981, and its role to promote R&D in Singapore was re-assigned to the Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). The government also established the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) in 1991 to oversee the development and implementation of science and technology policies and programmes. In 2001, the NSTB was restructured to become the Agency for Science and Technology (A*STAR) that we know today.

With MTI assuming lead role in promoting R&D in Singapore, the nation’s R&D policies became more pragmatic, and had a strong linkage to economic development. It was with the same pragmatism that in 2000, Singapore announced the launch of the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) initiative, with the aim of developing the sector into one of the key engines of the Singapore economy. This industry was deemed attractive and presented a huge economic opportunity. It was a bold move by Singapore as prior to that, biomedical research activities were mostly confined to the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (established in 1986), the Bioprocessing Technology Centre (established in 1990) and the National University of Singapore. Clinical research activities at the hospitals were also fairly limited and biomedical researchers had to compete against researchers from other disciplines for funding from a common national R&D budget. Pharmaceutical manufacturing activities were also limited. Beecham was the first to set up an antibiotic production plant on the island state in the early 70s. Other companies soon followed but most limited their activities to primary manufacturing involving process development and chemical synthesis of pharmaceutical active ingredients.

Phase 1 of the BMS initiative (2000 – 2005) focused on the rapid build-up of basic research capabilities and infrastructure, as well as attracting industry R&D laboratories and activities into the country. A scholarship scheme was also instituted to grow the pool of scientific talents in Singapore to support these activities.

Within 5 short years, A*STAR expanded the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Bioprocessing Technology Institute and established three additional basic biomedical sciences research institutes in the areas of bioengineering and nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and genomics. The Biopolis, a brand new R&D hub located close to the National University of Singapore campus, was swiftly constructed to house these institutes. A*STAR also successfully attracted a team of world-class research leaders to helm these institutes

At the same time, the Economic Development Board (EDB) successfully convinced a number of pharma and biotech companies to set up manufacturing and R&D operations in Singapore. This period coincided with the time when the global pharmaceutical industry saw widespread mergers and acquisitions. A number of pharmaceutical companies thus took the opportunity to re-organise their worldwide production activities and consolidated a portion of these activities in Singapore. Singapore saw an influx of big pharma R&D centres into the country, including those of Novartis, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithkline. These companies brought with them new capabilities in secondary manufacturing, formulation and finishing. Many of the new manufacturing facilities were set up in a dedicated manufacturing hub – the Tuas Biomedical Park.

By 2006, the Singapore government had fully subscribed to the need for a national level strategy to develop a knowledge-based innovation-driven economy and society. A ministerial level Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) chaired by the Prime Minister was set up to chart and oversee the implementation of this strategy. The National Research Foundation (NRF) was also formed to serve as the RIEC’s secretariat.

As Singapore’s basic research capabilities improved, the second phase of the BMS initiative (2006 -2010) was approved by the RIEC under the Science & Technology 2010 Plan to develop the country’s translational and clinical research (TCR) capability. This was to address the BMS sector’s limited ability and resources to translate the increasing number of basic scientific discoveries that were streaming out of research laboratories into useful innovations, marketable intellectual properties and clinical applications.

During this period, Singapore grew its pool of TCR talents, in particular physician-scientists, by creating new career tracks and training programmes. New TCR-oriented research centres were also established by A*STAR to support TCR activities. Among them, the Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) was set up to carry out early stage small molecule drug discovery, and its sister organisation, the Drug Discovery and Development unit (D3) was later established to advance pre-clinical development drug assets to first-in-man proof-of-concept clinical trials.

Furthermore, the National Medical Research Council (NMRC) under the Ministry of Health led the setting up of Translational and Clinical Research (TCR) Flagship programmes in disease areas of strategic importance. The objective was to amass complementary research capabilities across the various public research, healthcare and academic institutions in Singapore to jointly confront these research challenges. In addition, EDB and Bio*One Capital succeeded in attracting a number of biologic manufacturers to set up major production operations in Singapore, including Lonza and Genentech (now part of Roche).

In the third phase of the BMS initiative (2011-2015) and as part of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2015 (RIE2015) Plan, efforts and resources were channelled towards research programmes that would lead to greater healthcare and economic impacts. Building on the research capabilities established over the past decade, A*STAR started to implement plans to integrate its various research groups and created synergistic technology platforms to facilitate research translation. These efforts were supported by a steadily growing pool of clinician scientists that had been groomed to drive specific mission-oriented programmes targeting areas of high growth potential e.g. biologics, medtech and nutraceuticals/cosmeceuticals. New financial support schemes were also set up to encourage clinical trials needed to take products to market.

Under the current RIE2020 plan (2016-2020), the emphasis on the translation of research towards improving health outcomes has been further expanded. Research activities are steered towards key therapeutic areas identified by the MOH. New roadmaps have been crafted to guide the translation of scientific discoveries into therapeutic solutions that would transform or enhance health services delivery. A*STAR and EDB also set up the Industry Alignment Fund to further support public sector research and align its objectives with the needs of the industry. 2018 also saw biomanufacturing activities intensifying with several additional biomanufacturing plants coming online.

Since the implementation of the BMS Initiative, Singapore biomedical sciences R&D and manufacturing sectors have undergone tremendous changes. Singapore is now a favoured location in Asia for manufacturing of novel biologics. Pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Amgen have major biologics manufacturing sites in the country. Singapore is also a major hub for clinical research and trial coordination, often acting as the “control tower” for regional clinical studies.

Singapore’s biomedical sciences R&D has continued to strengthen and we are starting to see the fruits in the form of emerging Singapore-based biotech start-ups and companies as well as growing numbers of technology commercialisation deals. Still, despite all the progress, there is more that Singapore can do to solidify its reputation as a major international biomedical sciences hub. It must continue to strengthen the connections among R&D, clinical research, commercialisation and manufacturing, with the ultimate aim of improving healthcare outcomes. It must invest in its people by providing incentives to the industry to train a workforce that is ready for future developments. Singapore has to take a long term view in creating, nurturing and acquiring the necessary pieces needed for a sustainable biomedical sciences industry. By staying committed, the runway for Singapore’s biomedical sciences sector will no doubt be a long one.