Getting the formula right to boost Singapore's health and biomedical sector

The healthcare and biomedical sciences sector is one of the four domains that the Singapore government will provide research funding for under Singapore’s Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan.

In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry which comes under the domain has faced two main challenges in realising growth: escalating drug development costs and the consolidation of several major pharmaceutical labs in the country.

Government investment into pharmaceutical research is thus crucial, together with increasing public-private partnerships to commercialise and market new drugs. A*STAR’s Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) and Drug Discovery and Development Unit (D3) play a major role in the local drug development landscape.

ETC, which focuses on translating early-stage drug discoveries into clinical applications, provides research facilities and services that can be utilised by local companies to test and develop new drugs.

Among the most notable facilities available at ETC is the Singapore Screening Centre, a high-throughput screening platform that can help to identify potential drug candidates against disease by using a library of over 500,000 chemical compounds.

The compounds making up Singapore’s first publicly-funded anti-cancer drug, ETC-159, were identified through screens conducted at the Singapore Screening Centre. ETC-159 was discovered and developed by ETC and D3 in collaboration with Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS), and can potentially be used to treat colorectal, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. The drug entered clinical trials in 2015 and has since shown positive indications, stopping the growth of two patients’ tumours for 6 to 9 months.

Building upon the success of ETC-159, ETC and D3 (together with collaborators Duke-NUS and the Singapore Clinical Research Institute), recently announced that Singapore’s second publicly-funded cancer drug, ETC-206, advanced into clinical trials in December 2016. Currently in clinical trials too, the drug inhibits a specific growth enzyme in cancer cells, making it a potential treatment candidate for blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.

Having fostered strong research partnerships with academic institutions, clinical centres, and major industry players like Novartis and Debiopharm, ETC also facilitates the growth of the local drug development ecosystem by helping local biomedical companies expand their research and development capabilities. This is done through collaborative research, mentorship opportunities, and training programmes.

Building up Singapore’s health and biomedical sector into a successful core industry requires strong private-public partnerships. With robust partnerships in place, Singaporean pharmaceutical and biomedical companies can grow from strength to strength and become globally competitive.

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