She helps to fix broken human bodies

The biomedical sciences industry, nurtured by the Economic Development Board, is a key pillar of Singapore's economy. With 1% of the resident workforce in it accounting for 4% of gross domestic product in 2013, it punches well above its weight. Arti Mulchand profiles some of the people working in it.

For as long as she can remember, Ms Amanda Tan has had a fixation with how the human body works and how it fails; and how to fix it when it does.

"When I was in school, I developed a great interest in biology, and pursued my interest by creating drugs that treat diseases," says the 30-year-old.

She is a purification manufacturing supervisor at Roche Singapore Technical Operations.

She chose to read life sciences at the National University of Singapore, and in her final year, specialised in biomedical sciences.

Ms Tan did her final-year research on cell death in mammals, and drug concentrations that would kill cells, including cancerous ones.

Her plan was to find a job with a drug company making biologics, or treatment drugs that are produced through living cells and not chemicals, and which allow for more targeted treatment.

However, it was 2009, and the biologics sector in Singapore was in its infancy, and there were few jobs to pick from.

Fortunately for her, it was a promising sector that Singapore was looking to grow, and the Economic Development Board had just established an overseas attachment scheme to build up biologics manpower capabilities.

Ms Tan joined the scheme, and spent a year-and-a-half training at the American and British facilities of a pharmaceutical company.

She recalls: "I was involved in cutting-edge research on the development of drugs, and learnt to operate equipment that I had never used before."

She returned to Singapore in early 2011 as a cell culture manufacturing biotechnologist at its first Singapore plant, now owned by Roche Singapore.

In her first role, she helped to grow and harvest cells that produce therapeutic proteins that go into specific drugs.

She then took on a role in improving processes before moving back to manufacturing.

Today, she leads a team of nine biotechnologists who purify those harvested proteins to form the active pharmaceutical ingredient that is sent to Roche's American sites to be processed into drugs that doctors can use.

Her work results in the creation of drugs such as Herceptin, which is used in the treatment of some breast and stomach cancers, and Avastin, for colorectal cancer.

"Many of the world's blockbuster drugs are being made in Singapore.

"We play a critical role in producing drugs that improve quality of life, that treat diseases, and that save millions of lives around the world," Ms Tan says.

While that gives her job meaning, it also poses a great challenge: Production schedules can never be met at the expense of quality, because it can - literally - mean the difference between life and death.

"If there is a problem, we stop and fix it. If it cannot be fixed, we start over. We put the patient first," she says.

Her job has also made her acutely aware of the fragility of her own life, and she ensures that she pays as much attention to her health as to her end-users.

During her stint in New Hampshire in New England, she discovered hot yoga and did it almost every day, especially in the winter.

It involves practising yoga in a room that is at least 38 deg C. In Singapore, she has stuck with it, despite the heat.

"It helps train my mind and helps me concentrate better. It's also my way of dedicating time to myself - and to my own body."

This article was first published on June 2, 2014