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Faces of A*STAR

Keep chasing drug discoveries, says veteran scientist who is stepping down from key A*Star post

Published on 03 August 2018 | By Amelia Teng | Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

Dr Alex Matter

Dr Alex Matter is stepping down after nearly a decade helming the Experimental Therapeutics Centre at A*Star. Known as the father of targeted cancer therapies, he was one of the big names wooed here to drive Singapore's biomedical industry.
PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Singapore's health and biomedical researchers must continue to chase after discoveries and treatments for big diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, says the eminent scientist behind several game-changing cancer drugs.

Swiss pharma veteran Alex Matter, 79, who has also played a key role in getting the Republic's first two publicly-funded cancer drugs into clinical trials, stressed the importance of such "high risk, high reward" efforts, even as the Republic pumps more resources into areas like skin research and medical technology.

"Truly pioneering research and scientific breakthroughs lead to patient benefits, which drive economic benefits," he said. "The overriding goal must be for patient benefit - to prevent a disease, the best of all, or to achieve a cure, prolong life or improve quality of life."

While he will be leaving the driver's seat - he is stepping down after nearly a decade helming the Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC), and six years at its sister arm the Drug Discovery and Development Unit, or D3, at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) - he will continue to help shape research at A*Star.

Dr Matter, known as the father of targeted cancer therapies, was one of the big names wooed here to drive Singapore's biomedical industry.

Taking his place in October will be Dr Damian O'Connell, 58, former senior vice-president and global head (clinical sciences) in Bayer AG, a global pharmaceutical company. Both ETC and D3 - which have 70 and 15 staff respectively - were set up to bridge the gap between basic and pre-clinical research, which is done before any potential drug is approved for testing on people, and help take it to clinics and hospitals.

The journey from lab to shelf can take decades, said Dr Matter, who has spent 15 years in Singapore. "It takes perseverance to hold on because invariably you will be hit by setbacks and defeats."

He is unfazed by failure, pointing out that at his centre, five to six projects are dropped each year. Yet another five to six are started.

"If you hit your head against the wall and you can't break the wall, you try to find the door," he said.

"We did dozens of projects, many of them have just failed for a variety of reasons. But the important thing is to tackle projects that can fail relatively early. So the rule is to fail as fast as possible."

Dr Matter spearheaded the discovery of Glivec, one of the first targeted therapies for cancer, and a landmark drug that has vastly improved the outcomes of patients with a type of blood cancer.

Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council said: "Alex came from big pharma with a blockbuster (Glivec) behind his name. Then for the good part of a decade, he patiently worked with Singapore doctors, scientists and regulators, guiding them step by step through the drug development drill.

Today, we have made-in-Singapore drugs in clinical trial and a fast expanding biotech scene. We certainly owe much to Alex.

Dr Matter believes drug discovery is the way to go, despite opinions that say it is slow, risky and costly.

"We can make some money with some med-tech, some diagnostics... I think too many people are going after these smaller things."

Dr Matter will continue at A*Star as a senior fellow. "My weakness is I like working," said the father of four and grandfather of three, with one more grandchild on the way.

While he enjoys art, music, reading and travelling, science will always be his No. 1 hobby.

He is already mulling over how to radically change research in cancer, by diagnosing it earlier or even preventing it.

Asked what he hopes to do next, he said in jest: "At my age, you don't plan. You just live today and you're happy if there's another day."

Just like how "sure" is a word that does not exist in his line of work of drug discovery. "Things are plausible, things are probable, things are likely, nothing is for sure."

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