Stronghold Diagnostics Lab Boosts National Capacity for COVID-19 Testing

Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore continues to work hard to reduce the risk of transmission, with a nation-wide vaccination programme now underway. Even as we cross this important milestone, the nation remains vigilant, as people who have been vaccinated against the virus could still get infected. Testing remains a vital part of Singapore’s strategy to safeguard the health and well-being of Singaporeans.

Collective R&D Ecosystem Effort

The local R&D ecosystem players are working together to boost the national capacity for larger-scale COVID-19 testing. Since the middle of last year, the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab (SDL), established by A*STAR and the National University Health System (NUHS), has been working alongside other laboratories for COVID-19 testing. Temasek Foundation supported the lab as part of its Stay Prepared initiative to enhance the resilience of the Singapore community during the current COVID-19 outbreak, assisting with testing instruments and diagnostic kits.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat visited SDL during a visit to A*STAR on 12 April, and shared in a Facebook post that the strong partnership across the broader R&D ecosystem has been vital for Singapore’s collective response to the pandemic.

ASTAR Stronghold Diagnostics Lab Singapore Research and Development Ecosystem
At the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab. Row 1 (from left): Mr Cheong Chee Hoo, CEO of DSO; Ms Chan Lai Fung, Chairman of A*STAR; Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance; and Mr Frederick Chew, CEO of A*STAR. Row 2 (from left): Dr Fidah Alsagoff, Senior Managing Director, Temasek International Pte Ltd; and Assoc Prof Sunil Sethi, Group Chief of Laboratory Medicine, NUHS.

Building Up our Talent Pipeline in Times of Crisis

ASTAR Stronghold Diagnostics Lab Talent Diagnostics and Biotech
Dr Lim Chin Yan, Shift Lead at SDL, and Principal Investigator of Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS), preparing to enter the lab

When SDL was first established, it was staffed by researchers who volunteered to contribute their expertise and capabilities, putting their research work on hold temporarily. Today, SDL is manned by a specially-hired workforce from across the Singapore ecosystem, including volunteer scientists from A*STAR, the universities, and medical staff from NUHS, plus fresh graduates and professionals with relevant experience and qualifications.

Mr Philip Lim, the current Programme Director of SDL, and Chief Risk Officer of A*STAR said, “Part of our strategy is to translate the capabilities in SDL to new job opportunities. We have hired over 150 fresh graduates from our universities and polytechnics as well as mid-careerists to take over our lab operations. We are in fact upskilling and retraining new and current job seekers. This will help position them for a future in the diagnostics and biotech industry in Singapore.”

BRAVE-ing the COVID-19 world with Industry 4.0

ASTAR Stronghold Diagnostics Lab BRAVE COVID-19
Operator from the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab, bringing COVID-19 test samples to the BRAVE™ system, an automated system for sample processing using Industry 4.0 technologies such as robotics and smart sensors

Prof Patrick Tan, founding Programme Director of SDL, and Executive Director of A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) said, “Over the years, A*STAR has built deep capabilities in molecular biology, diagnostic testing, robotics, and smart sensing, that have enabled SDL to be set up. SDL is highly versatile and capable of processing tests from a wide variety of sources and formats, including the local community, dormitories, and Stay Home Notice (SHN) hotels.”

SDL leverages Industry 4.0 technologies, and a key enabler of the facilities is an automation system, known as BRAVE™ (Bio Rapid Automated Valence Engine), designed by researchers from A*STAR’s Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC), Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), and the Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub in collaboration with local enterprise KA Industrial Engineering.

ASTAR ARTC Stronghold Diagnostics Lab BRAVE Lab Automation
A graphic illustration of BRAVE™

“A key part of medical diagnostic testing involves transferring liquid medium from one format to another. This is usually carried out manually through the use of a pipette, and the process can be labour intensive and time-consuming. This process also carries a risk of human error and cross contamination,” explained Mr Victor Chan, Project Manager of ARTC.

To address these challenges for COVID-19 testing, research engineers from ARTC and SIMTech developed an automated liquid preparation system, with support from DXD Hub, GIS and A*STAR’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI) which shared their knowledge in biomedical sciences. KA Industrial Engineering supported the integration, assembly, testing and deployment of the system.

“BRAVE™ uses custom-built robotic and automation systems for automated handling of test samples, including capping and uncapping of test tubes, and pipetting and movement of liquids. It is flexible to work on various types of test tubes and well plate format, and includes barcode scanning for identification of sample. The entire automation takes place within a biosafety cabinet, eliminating human contact with live samples,” said Dr Ng Teck Chew, Principal Research Engineer of SIMTech.

These implementations help minimise human errors and reduce contamination and infection risks for laboratory staff, resulting in accurate, reliable and high-throughput testing processes within a safer environment.

ASTAR Stronghold Diagnostics Lab RT PCR machine
Lab operator loading well plates into an automated RNA extraction system

A Lab of the Future

ASTAR Stronghold Diagnostics Lab RT PCR COVID 19 detection
Lab operator placing well plates into an RT-PCR machine for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA

While Singapore’s population is increasingly being vaccinated, SDL will continue to support COVID-19 testing, and for the foreseeable future as Singapore further reopens and resumes activities.

Prof Patrick Tan added, “SDL is essentially a laboratory of the future, that combines biomedical research and engineering. SDL's platforms are adaptable and this opens up opportunities for these be deployed to other screening efforts in future, including for other infectious diseases.”

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