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Local researchers explore new approaches to takle age-old ailments Published on: 24 April 2009

A*STAR issued research grants for more than 50 biomedical projects on disorders of the immune system, infectious diseases, ageing and cancer.

1. A*STAR's Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and its consortia, namely Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC), Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN), Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and Singapore Stem Cell Consortium (SSCC), have issued more than 50 grants amounting to $36 million to research groups from local universities, research institutes and hospitals this year. The research projects awarded under BMRC's 7th General Grant Call, SBIC-SIgN Joint Grant Call, SSCC Grant Call and SIgN Grant Call, will potentially develop therapeutics for the treatment of ailments of the immune system, infectious diseases, ageing, cancer, etc.

Targeting ailments of the immune system

2. About 20% of the proposals are concerned with the study of what irritates the immune system and causes problems such as allergy, eczema and asthma1. Championing immune health is Prof Chua Kaw Yan of NUS2, who was awarded a record three grants under BMRC's 7th General Grant Call. She will focus on combating the common dust mite, Blomia tropicalis, which is responsible for 60-70% of allergy cases here including asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema. The first grant will investigate the mechanisms of an oral vaccine against the predominant allergen in B. tropicalis, Blo t 5 protein. Another will focus on optimising the potency of a genetic vaccine, while the third will involve creating a modified or ‘recombinant' protein to foster immunity against Blo t 5.

3. Increased prevalence of allergy is a major global problem and a preventive vaccine is currently unavailable. Said Prof Chua, "Immunotherapy remains the only truly disease-modifying treatment for asthma and allergic rhinitis. Traditional forms of immunotherapy use natural sources of allergens and have numerous disadvantages, such as the presence of undefined material, huge variability in sample composition, and contamination of allergens from other sources. We therefore hope to use the major allergen, Blo t 5, to develop a novel and effective therapeutic vaccine for immunotherapy."

Strategic steps to curb infectious disease

4. Grants have also been awarded to research teams that will use various approaches including genomics, proteomics and bioimaging to study various mechanisms of infection 3 , such as tuberculosis and malaria.

5. The research team led by Dr Ann Lee of the National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS)4 is a case in point. Awarded a BMRC grant, the team will confront Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB)5 by sifting through a bank of DNA samples extracted from drug-resistant MTB strains to identify novel mutated genes conferring resistance to Isoniazid, the main drug that combats tuberculosis. Said Dr Lee, "The identification of additional genes associated with Isoniazid resistance is important for the development of comprehensive molecular strategies that are potentially more efficient than current susceptibility testing methods, and could aid in giving more appropriate treatment to patients and decrease the spread of resistant strains. In addition, the discovery of new genes may reveal novel targets suitable for the development of alternative therapeutic options."

6. Another team, led by A/Prof Peter Preiser of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has been awarded a grant under the SBIC-SIgN Joint Grant Call to conduct basic research on the pathology of malaria. Prof Preiser said, "A key challenge to successful malaria intervention is our limited understanding of how the malarial parasite evades detection by the spleen - our immune system's control centre. With this grant, we will use new imaging tools to visualise and measure how many parasites are eliminated in the spleen. This work will give us a better understanding on which factors, both from the host as well as the parasite, contribute to the efficiency of parasite removal and could lead to new intervention strategies against the parasite."

Tackling problems associated with ageing

7. Also receiving funding are projects that will explore health problems associated with ageing such as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. One of them is Dr Gavin Dawe's group at NUS7, which received a grant under the SSCC Grant Call to explore the signaling mechanisms behind Alzheimer's disease. The grant is a nod to his group's discovery of an important protein interaction that suppresses neural cell formation in the brains of mice, which might have implications for Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia among older people. Said Dr Dawe, "In this project, we will investigate whether this protein interaction also occurs in human stem cells and in the adult mouse brain, as well as how it influences stem cell function. Our findings will increase our understanding of what these proteins do in the brain and in the long term, this knowledge may contribute to the development of treatments for Alzheimer's disease."

Exploring ways to deal with cancer pathways

8. At least one-fifth of all the grants have been awarded to projects dealing with cancer pathways or working on cancer cell lines. One of the groups led by Prof Shazib Pervaiz of NUS8 has been awarded the BMRC grant to examine how statins - cholesterol-lowering drugs - have the intriguing additional effect of restricting growth and inducing death of cancer cells. This will potentially benefit breast cancer patients. Said Prof Pervaiz, "Current breast cancer therapies include surgery, anti-cancer drugs and radiation, which are invasive or run the risk of relapse. Our team aims to characterise the interactions of statins with other proteins known to promote cell death and survival, and subsequently explore the potential for statins to fill the gap in novel strategies for more effective and less invasive treatment of breast and other forms of cancer."

Continuing A*STAR's efforts in R&D

9. Said Prof Sir George Radda, Chairman of BMRC, "The grant calls underscore A*STAR's commitment to foster excellent scientific research and talent in Singapore. The wide range of research areas covered under the grant calls is indicative of the spectrum of biomedical capabilities we have built up in Singapore over the years, as well as the high quality of our researchers. I look forward to the exciting and innovative discoveries that will result from the research the scientists are able to carry out with the funding from A*STAR."

10. Since its inaugural General Grant Call in 2001, BMRC has awarded a total of 389 grants (amounting to $285.5 mil) to local research institutes and hospitals including NUS, NUH and NCCS to realise the vision of Singapore becoming a premier centre for biomedical research and development. The 8th BMRC General Grant Call is expected to open for applications on 4 May this year.