National platforms to take Singapore's drug development efforts to the next level

Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council, and Dr Damian O’Connell, chief executive officer of A*Star's Experimental Drug Development Centre, at the centre on June 26, 2019. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - It goes by the lacklustre name of ETC-159, but this chemical compound, which is for people with advanced cancer, is a front runner among hundreds of candidates vying to become Singapore's first home-grown blockbuster drug.

To consolidate such efforts and take them to the next level, a national centre for drug development - the first of its kind here - was opened on Wednesday (June 26).

Covering four floors of a building in the biomedical centre Biopolis, the Experimental Drug Development Centre has over 100 researchers and is bringing together different players and centres to unearth both chemical and biological drugs, and take them to patients.

The centre will work with Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) research institutes, hospitals, universities and companies to transform discoveries into new medicines, said Deputy Prime Minister and National Research Foundation chairman Heng Swee Keat, who was guest of honour at the event.

Singapore's biomedical sciences sector has come a long way in the last 35 years, and now makes up almost 4 per cent of the country's GDP, employing more than 22,000 workers, he noted.

In fact, it manufactures four of the world's top 10 medicines, and has been rated as the most attractive newcomer market for biopharmaceutical investments, with A*Star consistently ranked among the top 10 biotech innovators in cancer research in Asia.

"Singapore's biotech companies can collectively contribute to improving the lives of patients and their families in Asia, and open up new markets for their technologies and our economy," said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

Deputy Prime Minister and National Research Foundation chairman Heng Swee Keat touring the high throughput screening laboratory at the Experimental Drug Development Centre on June 26, 2019. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

To make this possible, the Target Translation Consortium was also launched on Wednesday to coordinate early-stage drug discovery efforts across academia, healthcare institutions, and government agencies.

Members include A*Star, Duke-NUS Medical School, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University, National Healthcare Group, National University of Singapore, National University Health System, and SingHealth.

Calling the effort a significant milestone, Dr Damian O'Connell, the centre's chief executive officer and a pharmaceutical veteran, said: "We look forward to working with our partners on the next phase of growth in drug development, and leveraging great science to make great medicines for patients."

In addition, the Singapore Therapeutics Development Review was announced, which consolidates three existing schemes into a new grant that funds early-stage projects up to $750,000, said A*Star.

Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council, pointed out that the centre was more than just a physical building, but a national effort to optimise resources and train scientists in making drugs.

"By working together more closely, and by establishing a national drug development centre run by professionals from the pharmaceutical industry, we enhance our chances of success."

"I don't think we have to wait long to reap the dividends from these investments, as well as to see more made-in-Singapore drugs in the clinic."

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