Mar. 01, 2010
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Explore Asia

Focus on Singapore

  • Biopolis, SingaporeBiopolis, Singapore
  • Biopolis, Singapore
  • Eric Sprengers, PhD, Director of Merck’s Translational Medicine Research Centre
  • Prof. Paul Herrling, Chairman of the Board at Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases
  • Beh Kian Teik, Director, Biomedical Sciences, Singapore Economic Development Board
  • More than 2,000 researchers in private and public sector labs are co-located in the Biopolis. (Photo courtesy of Agency for Science, Technology & Research, Singapore)

Singapore provides a nearly optimal hub into the Asian markets. It also offers high class infrastructure in all sectors from transportation to communication, and a strong commitment of the government towards serving investors especially from the field of biotechnology and pharmaceutics. A flat hierarchy enables quick decisions and a high degree of liability.

We asked two global players of the pharmaceutical industry why they invest in the location of Singapore instead of other possible sites. We talked to a company that is resident in Singapore for several years and already had the opportunity to collect experience about this location, and to a company that that recently opened a dependence in Singapore.
Additionally we interviewed Kian-Teik Beh, Director, Biomedical Sciences, Singapore Economic Development Board, to address the challenges for Singapore to further develop the opportunities for foreign investors.

Schering-Plough which merged with MSD last year opened its Translational Medicine Research Centre in February 2009, the research center is focused on biomarker discovery and development. We talked to Erik Sprengers, PhD, director of MSD's Translational Medicine Research Centre, about the current situation for investors from the bio-pharmaceutical business in Singapore.

What are the reasons for choosing Singapore for your new research centre?

Erik Sprengers: Singapore offers a well-developed biomedical research infrastructure which is notably strong in translational sciences. Since English is a first language and the Singaporeans are a community of sophisticated individuals who have many experiences internationally, supplemented by the geographical proximity to the markets showing world's strongest development, Singapore is a perfect stepping stone into Asia.

What are the efforts of the Singaporean government to make Singapore interesting for the pharmaceutical industry?

Erik Sprengers: Despite the already existing success, the government allows itself no let-up in efforts to further improve science and medicine infrastructure and its educational system.

Investors are further supported by a good regulatory oversight, resulting in fast turnaround times of regulatory procedures with respect to clinical protocols. This, besides many other factors, leads to an overall business climate that supports biomedical innovation.

Do you receive support from the Singaporean government?

Erik Sprengers: We continue to maintain strong collaboration with the Singaporean government and the local scientific and medical community. We are still, however, in the early days of our Translational Medicine Research Centre. The local government is doing a great job developing the biomedical sciences here and a pharmaceutical company like ours brings complementary skills to the table. We know how to translate discovery research into new therapies.

What are your strongest demands to the government for the next years?

Erik Sprengers: Further expansion of biomedical landscape (R&D) and of the biomedical education system.

Do Singapore's Universities educate enough skilled personnel for running research institutions or are you forced to hire foreign researchers?

Erik Sprengers: In the current environment, highly skilled senior roles are filled by foreign nationals. Also for jobs in certain specialty areas, research talent and expertise is often brought in from other countries as Singapore is an excellent place to live.

Are Singapore's Universities large enough to enable efficient and sufficient cooperation with your research department?

Erik Sprengers: For the moment, yes. With further growth of the biomedical sciences and R&D activities (industry and academia), the capacity of the Singaporean universities in training scientists needs to be further explored and developed.

 

Novartis founded its Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore in 2002. For the development of treatment and prevention methods against tropical diseases that are typical for this part of the world, it is very useful to do research on-site. At this location they can find patients facing their diseases personnel with an extremely high motivation to work in this field. We talked to Prof. Paul L. Herrling, Chairman of the Board at Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases.

Please give us a short overview for the reason why Novartis founded its Institute for Tropical Disease (NITD) in Singapore instead of other possible sites in the area.

Paul L. Herrling: Novartis decided to allocate part of its drug discovery resources to neglected tropical diseases. The choice of location for a research institute is a strategic challenge; the institute had to be located in the proximity to patients and their doctors in order to better understand their needs, it also had to be located in a country with a strong scientific community and have access to the best scientific talent. Singapore fulfilled all these criteria, and NITD was founded in 2002 as a public-private partnership between Novartis and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).

How do you judge the development of the scientific infrastructure in the past five years?

Paul L. Herrling: When NITD started its operations in 2002, some of the infrastructure and services that are necessary for drug discovery were still in the early stages of development. With the essential help of EDB this has drastically changed in the last five years and presently, in terms of lab infrastructure and services by suppliers of reagents, equipment and consumables, Singapore is pretty much equivalent to Europe and the US. While the universities in Singapore produce a steady stream of excellent and highly motivated undergraduates, locally educated PhD scientists are still in short supply although the situation is improving.

For your research one needs strong support from the local healthcare system, politicians and population. Do you receive this support sufficiently?

Paul L. Herrling: The support of biomedical research by the government and its agencies (Economic Development Board, EDB) is exceptional and probably one of the most efficient in the world. It was only due to EDB's exceptional support that it was possible to establish NITD in a record time.

Do you plan to increase your investments in Singapore?

Paul L. Herrling: Decision on the increase of our investment depends on the results obtained. In the meantime we are focused in achieving our goals: discovering new treatments and prevention methods for major tropical neglected diseases such as Dengue, tuberculosis and malaria and develop them to the clinical stage. NITD has grown by leveraging its original endowment with major grants from the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

What are your strongest demands for politics in the next few years?

Paul L. Herrling: For NITD it is essential that biomedical research, both preclinical and clinical, is not only maintained, but vigorously further developed - for instance in the field of medicinal chemistry and clinical sciences.

Do Singapore's Universities educate enough skilled personnel for running research institutions or are you forced to hire foreign researchers?

Paul L. Herrling: Scientists educated at Singapore Universities are excellent but at the PhD and postdoc level still numerically insufficient. About 40% of the scientific personnel at NITD is Singaporean with the rest coming from 23 nations, demonstrating the fact that Singapore is very attractive for excellent scientists.

Are Singapore's Universities large enough to enable efficient and sufficient cooperation with your research department?

Paul L. Herrling: Singapore Universities, research institutes such as the Genomic Institute of Singapore and local hospitals, are excellent partners for NITD which has numerous collaborations with them.
Both NUS and NTU have established multi-disciplinary programs involving Departments of Microbiology, Medicine, and Chemistry, to mention just a few, that are geared towards developing expertise to support the pharmaceutical industry in Singapore. The close proximity of the local universities to NITD also allows frequent face-to-face interactions between the researchers, which is necessary for fruitful discussions. Several senior scientists of NITD are on the faculty of Singapore Universities.
In addition to research collaborations, NITD is currently running a joint MSc program with Singapore universities, the Swiss Tropical Institute and the University of Basel. Graduates from this highly selective program receive a dual diploma from NUS and the University of Basel.

 

Mr. Kian-Teik Beh, Director, Biomedical Sciences, Singapore Economic Development Board, cordially answered our questions on the efforts of the EDB to address the needs of investors in the biomedical field.

Compared to the last decade, how do you see the development of the Asian-Pacific region and the role of Singapore?

Kian-Teik Beh: Within a short decade, Singapore has emerged an international bio-cluster. Today, more than 4,300 researchers in 50 biomedical sciences companies and 30 research/medical institutes carry out drug discovery and development as well as medical product innovation in Singapore.
Singapore has established an integrated network of research institutes, academic medical centers, medical institutes and hospitals that offer multidisciplinary capabilities from basic science to translational and clinical research. This integration provides an efficient flow of knowledge from the lab to the clinic, while enabling clinician-scientists to verify hypotheses derived from the clinic. Leveraging these capabilities, a growing base of companies is carrying out innovative early-phase clinical research in Singapore to validate promising drug candidates and better understand the biology of diseases in patients from key Asian ethnic groups.
Furthermore, companies can tap on Singapore's researchers' high quality of scientific analyses, conformance to protocols and ease of flow of materials/data to manage and coordinate clinical trials across Asia. Today, more than 20 leading CROs and pharma companies manage and coordinate regional clinical trials from Singapore.

How do you attract talent and companies to move to Singapore?

Kian-Teik Beh: Singapore's public sector has been open to partnering companies, who can tap into Singapore's multidisciplinary capabilities to accelerate the development of new therapies and address unmet healthcare needs. Leading companies such as AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and Lilly are collaborating with Singapore partners across drug discovery and development activities.
In addition, as a cosmopolitan society that remains rooted in Asian culture Singapore has drawn both global and regional talent, who seek to experience the best international experience at the cultural crossroads of the East and the West. Singapore's safe environment and its base of renowned international schools have also made it easier for executives to relocate their families.
Singapore has also been expanding its range of entertainment and recreational facilities. From the year 2008, Singapore began to host Formula One's first night race during the Singapore Grand Prix. This year, two integrated resorts, which host world-class hotel, convention, entertainment facilities and a casino in one location, will officially open. Universal Studios will open a theme park in one of these resorts.

What efforts do you take to strengthen and expand your scientific and academic infrastructure?

Kian-Teik Beh: Singapore has demonstrated agility in establishing key infrastructure and capabilities rapidly as soon as it launched its focused effort to develop the biomedical sciences sector in the year 2000.
Within the first three years of development, 2 million square feet of research space at the Biopolis was made available in an integrated campus that is designed to co-locate and promote collaborations amongst private-sector labs and research institutes.
In the past five years, Singapore has established Academic Medical Centres and Investigational Medicine Units dedicated to early-phase trials to facilitate translational and clinical research. In addition, Singapore's research institutes have established capabilities in core areas such as bio-imaging, phenotyping of its pan-Asian patient base, cohort studies, as well as key diseases (e.g. cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic diseases, infectious diseases and eye diseases).

 


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