A*Star set for big revamp to keep pace with changes

Restructured research agency will spur collaboration across different scientific disciplines and institutes

Dr Choong Meng Ling (left), group leader (High Throughput Screening) from the Experimental Therapeutics Centre, bringing DPM Teo Chee Hean (second from right) around the Experimenta Therapeutics Centre (ETC) while Chairman of A*Star Lim Chuan Poh (right) looks on. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Singapore's first research body and one of its largest, is set to undergo a transformation to keep pace with industry changes and promote cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Details will be revealed only in the Committee of Supply debate in a few weeks, though its chairman Lim Chuan Poh said yesterday that the agency is reviewing its funding mechanism, among other things.

Mr Lim said the restructured agency would facilitate even more collaboration across different scientific disciplines and institutes, and lay the fertile ground to bring discoveries to commercialisation.

"You need to bring multiple institutions together to ensure that different entities along the innovation value chain... have the same focus (in terms of) the problem you want to solve and the benefits you want to bring to society," said Mr Lim.

It is expected to take months for the reorganisation plan to be drawn up, with implementation likely to take years, he said on the sidelines of a visit with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC), where drugs are developed using small molecules.

Mr Teo toured ETC's Singapore Screening Centre, which identifies compounds for drug development. Singapore's first publicly funded cancer drug, ETC-159, which targets numerous cancers, began its conception here.

ETC's chief executive Alex Matter said the drug, which is being tested on patients, stopped the growth of two patients' tumours for six to nine months. "It is not a proof of efficacy, but it is an encouraging situation," said Professor Matter.

Ongoing Phase 1A clinical trials, to fine-tune the right dosage to make it safe for humans, are expected to end in the second quarter of this year. Phase 1B, to test its effectiveness on patients with the right mutations, is expected to start in August.

Mr Teo, who is also chairman of the National Research Foundation, said Singapore has built a strong scientific knowledge base, and the next step is to translate that knowledge into something that benefits the economy and Singaporeans, including in job creation.

"We have built up a good store of knowledge and what we are building now is the entire ecosystem together with connections into the industry to see how we can take this knowledge base, bring it into the industry, have deployable solutions... to have an effect both economically and on our healthcare system," said Mr Teo.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline A*Star set for big revamp to keep pace with changes. Subscribe