New initiative to boost synthetic biology research

Cannabis plants in Smith's Falls, Ontario, meant for the federally regulated medical cannabis market in Canada. One of the National Research Foundation's thrusts in its Synthetic Biology R&D Programme is to identify cannabinoid genes for the sustaina
Cannabis plants in Smith's Falls, Ontario, meant for the federally regulated medical cannabis market in Canada. One of the National Research Foundation's thrusts in its Synthetic Biology R&D Programme is to identify cannabinoid genes for the sustainable production of medicinal cannabinoids - without the need to grow the plant.PHOTO: REUTERS

Unlocking therapeutic potential of cannabinoids one area of focus

Despite its widespread abuse as an illegal recreational drug, cannabis has many health benefits. Cannabinoid-based medication can, among other things, help to counteract the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

Scientists in Singapore hope to unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids - chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant - with none of the negative side effects and social ills.

Cultivation of the cannabis plant, whose leaves are usually smoked by drug abusers, is illegal in Singapore.

A new Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme, however, will identify cannabinoid genes for the sustainable production of medicinal cannabinoids - without the need to grow the plant.

The programme is part of a new research initiative announced yesterday by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The initiative, a $25 million Synthetic Biology Research and Development Programme, will span five years and help boost Singapore's research into synthetic biology.

This refers to the science behind the production of natural products through engineering biological systems.

Synthetic biology, said the NRF, has the potential to replace current methods of chemical synthesis and extraction from natural products, which are laborious, expensive and often produce low yields.

With the global push towards sustainability and a more efficient use of natural resources, a bio-based economy built on research and innovation in the biological sciences could transform Singapore's manufacturing processes, health and nutrition, and grow new industries with high-quality jobs, said the NRF in a statement yesterday.

GREAT POTENTIAL

Synthetic biology research is maturing and we are well positioned to move forward with translational research for industrial application.

NRF DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMMES GEORGE LOH, on developing synthetic biology capabilities.

The global bio-based market is expected to reach US$38.7 billion (S$51.6 billion) by 2020, based on estimates by market research company Allied Market Research. Countries such as the United States and China have also invested in developing synthetic biology capabilities.

Mr George Loh, NRF director of programmes, said: "Synthetic biology research is maturing and we are well positioned to move forward with translational research for industrial application."

Singapore's new R&D programme will have three thrusts. Other than the development of a synthetic cannabinoid biology programme, the other two areas of focus are the establishment of proprietary national strains of yeast and bacteria for commercialisation, and the delivery of biochemicals, such as rare fatty acids, to help industries here.

Plant biology and biotechnology expert Chua Nam Hai, director of the new programme, said creating new microbial organisms under the proprietary national strain could provide new platforms that can help to create a wider range of compounds, potentially generating diverse intellectual property.

Producing commercially relevant compounds, coupled with the use of new proprietary strains and platforms, could also attract industries which use these compounds in their products, Prof Chua added.

Four research projects led by scientists from institutions such as the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University have already been given grants under this programme.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'New initiative to boost synthetic biology research'. Print Edition | Subscribe