Cell therapy, where living cells are harnessed to treat or prevent disease, is hailed as the future of medicine. But the bottleneck is in producing good-quality cells cost-effectively and in large quantities.
Singapore, leveraging on its strong biopharmaceutical manufacturing base and its early lead in stem cell research, has earmarked cell manufacturing as its next big money-spinner.
Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Biomedical Research Council, said: "Around the world, there are relatively limited concerted efforts in scaling up cell production and ensuring quality of the final product. We have the opportunity to invest aggressively in this space, with the end-goal of growing our biopharmaceutical manufacturing pie."
Biopharmaceutical manufacturing, which is the production of small molecule drugs and biologics such as proteins, is an important sector for Singapore, contributing about 4 per cent of gross domestic product and employing more than 7,700 highly skilled workers. Last year, it generated $15.7 billion in manufacturing output and $9.4 billion value-add.
To replicate the success in cell manufacturing would call for advanced technologies and techniques, said A*Star.
So $80 million is going into programmes to scale up, deepen understanding of cell attributes relating to safety and efficacy, and developing technology to assess product quality during manufacturing.
Dr Seet said: "These are living cells, not chemical compounds. We have to ensure we keep them alive and functional."
In cell therapy, intact living cells are injected, grafted or implanted into a patient to restore tissue or organ function, or fight diseases such as cancer, for instance.
The handful of local companies doing such research will get a boost from the effort.
Biotech firm CellResearch Corporation, which is worth $700 million and has 44 patents, is among the home-grown firms that are pioneers in cell therapy. It has developed a stem cell treatment that can potentially heal wounds such as diabetic ulcers quickly, doing away with the need for skin grafts. It has received approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration to test its treatment on patients, with clinical trials starting this year.
A CellResearch spokesman said: "We want to take advantage of Singapore's efforts and tap the facilities it is building as a potential source of stem cells." This will contribute to the firm's long-term aim of building a plant here to produce medical grade stem cells, he added.