R&D funds spurring world-class research in Singapore

A doctor using a pincer-like device to remove tumours from a stomach cancer patient without the need for open or even keyhole surgery. Gastric cancer research was highlighted as one of the bright stars in Singapore's push to be an R&D hub.
A doctor using a pincer-like device to remove tumours from a stomach cancer patient without the need for open or even keyhole surgery.PHOTO: SINGAPORE GASTRIC CANCER CONSORTIUM

For decades, gastric cancer has been a silent killer, sneaking up on more than 700,000 unsuspecting victims in Asia every year and surfacing only when patients have little chance of recovery.

But in recent years, Singapore scientists have edged closer to uncovering the sinister cancer early.

One method - a simple blood test that could potentially detect the cancer even before symptoms start to surface, simply by measuring the levels of micro-RNA, which are the chemicals that help regulate genes.

Research into gastric cancer was on Friday highlighted as one of the bright stars in Singapore's research push, as the country's research funding body, the National Research Foundation (NRF), unveiled a record $19 billion budget for the next five years.

Over the past 25 years, $40 billion has been pumped into R&D here, and it has borne fruit, creating thousands of jobs and propelling Singapore to world-leader status in areas ranging from water treatment to eye and stomach cancer research, said the NRF in a review last month.

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University and National University Singapore, for one, have created membranes that mimic a protein found in all living things called aquaporin. It can purify water at lower pressures than is required for conventional polymeric membranes, making water treatment cheaper. At the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri), researchers discovered a method to put the brakes on myopia, which afflicts eight in 10 people here by the time they are adults, just through an eyedrop.

Professor Wong Tien Yin, former executive director of Seri and medical director of the Singapore National Eye Research Institute, said government funding has been critical in the success of eye research here in two ways: It helped set up Seri and build a pipeline of senior and junior clinician scientists.

"We hope there will continue to be sustained funding to the hospitals where the patients are and to where needs are identified," he said.

Associate Professor Yeoh Khay Guan from the National University Health System and a gastric cancer expert, said government grants enabled the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium (SGCC) to accelerate the pace of gastric cancer research as it allowed for studies of larger scope and scale that have potentially greater impact.

The SGCC was granted two five-year tranches of the NRF Translational and Clinical Research Flagship grant in 2007 and 2013.

"The long period of sustained grant funding has also allowed the SGCC to attract, train and, most importantly, retain research talent in the gastric cancer field," added Prof Yeoh, who is also lead principal investigator of the SGCC.

But the country's research funding body has acknowledged that there are some weak spots, including lacklustre private sector funding. Between 2011 and last year, the Government committed $16.1 billion to research, but private sector research spending fell short of its goal of hitting 2.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product last year.

NRF chief Low Teck Seng had said it was partly because firms were more cautious about spending due to the slowdown in the global economy.

More also needs to be done to commercialise good research. Professor Low noted that Singapore faces the challenge of turning patents and knowledge from the universities and institutes into economic impact and solutions for national issues.

According to the NRF, this will be addressed through collaborative laboratories between major industry players and universities and institutes, and the transfer of talent from research to industry and vice versa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'R&D funds spurring world-class research here'. Print Edition | Subscribe