Singapore firm in global alliance to develop Covid-19 treatment

The co-founders of local start-up Proteona - (from left) Dr Shawn Hoon, Dr Wang Yingting and Dr Jonathan Scolnick - having a discussion in their laboratory in Singapore.
The co-founders of local start-up Proteona - (from left) Dr Shawn Hoon, Dr Wang Yingting and Dr Jonathan Scolnick - having a discussion in their laboratory in Singapore. PHOTO: NUS ENTERPRISE

As the global death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic races upwards, scientists all over the world are also racing against time to develop vaccines against the virus.

Unfortunately, these vaccines may not work for those with poorer immune systems, such as cancer patients and those with comorbidities - that is, having more than one medical condition at the same time.

Local start-up Proteona announced this week that it is forming an alliance with research teams from the United States and Germany which specialise in the fields of oncology, applied life sciences and material sciences as well as single cell genomics and bioinformatics.

Their goal is to develop an antibody treatment that can tackle a broad range of coronaviruses for these vulnerable individuals.

If successful, the treatment developed by the alliance will allow vulnerable patients to fight not only against the strain of coronavirus responsible for the current outbreak, but also future variants of the virus.

Dr Andreas Schmidt, chief executive of Proteona, said that with a growing global population and a changing climate, more variants of the coronavirus will spring up in the future.

Said Dr Schmidt: "We cannot have the same response each time, scrambling to create therapies and vaccines. Instead, we must develop therapies that can not only help in the current crisis, but will also be available for the next one."

Vaccines work by triggering the body's immune response towards a certain pathogen so that when the same pathogen enters the body the next time, the immune system is able to summon its defences against the pathogen quickly.

Individuals with comorbidities or cancer have immune systems that are too weak to mount a defence against the virus, said Dr Schmidt, and they are therefore not ideal candidates to receive a vaccine.

Therefore, an alternative treatment such as the use of antibodies is "badly needed", he added.

The scientists intend to develop the treatment by looking at a particular type of immune cells - known as B-cells - in the samples of 20 patients from around the world who have recently recovered from the Covid-19 infection.

B-cells are responsible for producing different types of antibodies, which in turn battle against different kinds of pathogens.

By studying the gene and protein expressions of individual cells, the team will then be able to single out those which produce antibodies targeting coronaviruses in particular. This is done using Proteona's single-cell sequencing platform, which is able to do it for thousands of cells within five days.

The process allows the team to develop an antibody treatment - which would likely be administered intravenously - that can fight against different types of coronaviruses.

Dr Schmidt noted that it is because of the efforts of the front-line healthcare workers and the Singapore Government that companies like Proteona can undertake this work in Singapore, while many labs in other parts of the world have been shuttered.

"We invite all companies in the region to join us in our quest to create the next wave of antiviral therapies," he added.

  • Proteona is seeking volunteers who recently recovered from Covid-19 to contribute to this research by donating blood samples. Interested parties can e-mail the team at

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2020, with the headline Singapore firm in global alliance to develop Covid-19 treatment. Subscribe