Can Singapore become a global hub for biotech?

Singapore skyline

With government support and strong academic institutions, does Singapore have what it takes to become a global centre for life sciences? DDW’s Diana Spencer explores how the country is turning pioneering science into a successful biotech industry.

Thanks to significant investment by the government into research and development, Singapore has become a leading centre for biomedical sciences in Asia. According to Statista, revenue in this sector is expected to grow at an annual rate of 6.77%, resulting in a market volume of US$2,208m by 20281. Singapore is among a few countries worldwide whose pharmaceutical export value far exceed the import value.

The government’s Biomedical Sciences (BMS) initiative was launched in June 2000, focused on boosting industries such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical technology, and healthcare. Following this, a medical innovation and development centre, Biopolis Hub, was opened in 2005. These boosts to the sector encouraged foreign investment, so that Singapore is now home to several of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, Novartis, Abbot, GlaxoSmithKline and Lonza, who have research or manufacturing centres in the country2.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) drives scientific discovery and technological innovation, bridging the gap between academia and industry to turn scientific research into viable business endeavours. In terms of drug discovery, every year the agency awards national grants through the Singapore Therapeutics Development Review (STDR), designed to boost the quality and quantity of drug development and biotech pipelines in Singapore3. As well as being a hub for pharmaceutical research and innovation, the pharmaceutical sector in Singapore is supported by a strong regulatory environment, with the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) at its centre.

UK-based molecular diagnostics group Yourgene operates in Singapore. Dr Aarti Gokhale, Senior Director Business Development — APAC at Yourgene Health, explains why it has become such an important market: “Singapore was one of the first Asian countries to invest in building out an ecosystem for scientific research. Singapore’s status as ‘Gateway to Asia’ attracts the best talent and top pharma/biotechnology companies to establish R&D and manufacturing facilities. This confluence of people, industry and government support has created the perfect environment to drive innovation in the life sciences industry.”

Leading the way in academic research

One of Singapore’s key strengths is education and its academic prowess, particularly in cancer research. The National University of Singapore (NUS) was recently ranked first in Asia and eighth worldwide by the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings (WUR). Part of NUS, the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore) was officially launched in 2008 and was awarded a $172 million ‘Research Centre of Excellence’ grant by the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Education.

Professor Wee Joo Chng is Director of the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore and Group Director of Research, at the National University Health System, as well as a Senior Principal Investigator of CSI Singapore. In 2019 he was part of a research team which discovered humanised antibody, PRL3-zumab, was effective at shrinking PRL3 over-expressing tumours, and which has since been approved for Phase II clinical trials in Singapore, the US and China.

In May 2023, Prof Wee Joo Chng and his team published a paper showing that TOX2 is aberrantly increased in patients with Natural killer/T-cell lymphoma (NKTL), highlighting the potential of a proteolysis-targeting chimera (PROTAC) targeting TOX2 as a NKTL therapy option. He explains: “We have been interested to identify potential new drug targets that the tumour is dependent on. In our study, we identified TOX2 as an important gene over-expressed and critical for NKTL survival. We are now working at ways to target TOX2 including use of PROTAC to degrade TOX2. The potential is high as TOX2 seem to be more critical for tumour cells than normal cells, so its degradation may be more critical for the NKTL cancer cells. However, it is still a long way from this to the development of a suitable molecule that we can test in humans.”

In another cancer breakthrough, a 2023 clinical trial led by Pierce Chow, Senior Consultant Surgeon at the National Cancer Centre in Singapore, proved that adjuvant therapy with atezolizumab (Tecentriq) and bevacizumab (Avastin) increased the recurrence-free survival of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) following surgical resection or ablation. Singapore is also leading the way in genomics, having founded The Genome Institute of Singapore as far back as 2000. Dr Gokhale expands on the country’s leadership role: “Singapore is a great example of integration of genomic medicine in healthcare via population scale research. The SG100K/PRECISE project is exemplar of how multi-dimensional population scale genomics projects when done right, can have a significant impact on the practice of medicine. One of the strengths of Singapore and its approach is the trust between Singaporeans and the government. Singapore is also a role model for other Southeast Asian countries, and we can see that large population- scale projects with the potential to impact medical practice are being undertaken in Thailand, Vietnam etc. These are mostly modelled on the SG100K project.”

A nascent culture of translation

Despite its academic advantages and 20 years of support from the government, Singapore has not yet had any major successes in the biopharmaceutical industry, with few drugs from Singapore-based companies making it to the later stages of development. Cell therapy company Tessa Therapeutics was tipped for success, but officially ceased to operate in June 2023, even after having raised $200 million in funding.

One area of weakness could be in translating innovative science into a viable business. This is the opinion of Stephen Hess, VP Academic Partnerships at Evotec and Expert-in- Residence of 65LAB. “Singapore has many of the critical elements required to build a successful life sciences ecosystem; a very strong academic research base, consistent and well-managed government funding and support, and a compact geographical footprint,” he says. “However, the culture of translation amongst academics is still quite nascent, albeit with a growing number of successful entrepreneurial pioneers. Academic innovators have lacked optionality in terms of mechanisms to support the translation of their research into new life science products and services. As a result, VCs have struggled to find sufficiently mature opportunities in which to invest.”

Turning science into business

There are a number of initiatives underway to improve the landscape for life sciences entrepreneurs in Singapore. The Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC) was created in 2019 to bring public sector and industry partners together to translate scientific discoveries into biotherapeutic candidates.

The Singapore government is also encouraging international collaboration through the founding of the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE), described as “an international collaboratory of research centres set up by top global universities and research institutes in Singapore”4. The campus hosts the Cambridge Centre for Advanced Research and Education In Singapore (CARES) and the Singapore- MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), among others.

A new initiative, 65LAB, aims to translate advanced scientific research from Singapore’s top institutions into commercial ventures in the field of breakthrough therapeutics. It is the result of a partnership between Evotec SE, Lightstone Ventures, ClavystBio, Leaps by Bayer, Polaris Partners, and the Polaris Innovation Fund. By bringing together Singaporean research institutions and experienced global investors, 65LAB aims to accelerate drug discovery and the establishment of new therapeutic companies in Singapore.

Stephen Hess explains how the project will work: “65LAB offers up to US$1.5 million investment over 18-24 months to fund selected pre-seed projects originating from our academic partners. Ultimately, 65LAB aims to enhance Singapore’s biotech sector by creating new therapeutic companies and developing life-saving medicines. We hope 65LAB can play an important role in realising the huge potential that exists in Singapore through generating the kind of breakout company successes that can inspire other potential academic entrepreneurs.”

Links have also been formed between Singapore and the UK. In March 2023, Cancer Research Horizons and Singapore’s EDDC announced a five-year strategic partnership to accelerate oncology pipeline assets across a range of developmental stages and therapeutic modalities. The following month, UK company Plasticell and Singapore-based LambdaGen entered into a strategic collaboration to exploit genome editing technologies to create a broadly-applicable iPSC-derived allogenic immunotherapy platform.

Success fosters success

There are already signs that these efforts to improve international relations and advance drug discovery in Singapore are working. The number of biotech companies in Singapore is expected to increase to 84 by 2032, with the number at the clinical stage of development more than doubling to 36, according to the report ‘Bridging the Talent Gaps in Singapore’s Biotech Sector’, commissioned by Deep Tech ecosystem builder and investor SGInnovate and conducted by global strategy firm LEK Consulting5.

In 2022, Boehringer Ingelheim bought exclusive worldwide rights to research, develop and commercialise products based on a panel of innovative, tumour- specific antibodies from A*STAR. The antibodies were generated through a collaboration between A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and Institute of Bioengineering & Bioimaging (IBB) the EDDC.

There has also been significant investment in infrastructure in the country. Chinese giant WuXi Biologics has announced plans to create a new contract research, development, and manufacturing (CRDM) centre in Singapore, described by CEO Chris Chen as “one of the most advanced pharmaceutical hubs in the world”. Sanofi is also building a facility there, one of two fully digitised vaccine manufacturing EVolutive Facilities (EVF), capable of producing up to four vaccines at the same time, along with Hilleman Laboratories, which has recently opened a US$20 million vaccine manufacturing plant.

Prof Wee Joo Chng is hopeful for the future: “The ecosystem is becoming stronger. We are small and integrated. Academic partnerships with the industry are not difficult. One great example is the partnership between NUS, A*STAR and the National University Hospital (NUH) with cancer diagnostic company MiRXES, which developed the technology that led to the spin-out and to subsequent validation studies. Now we are still in collaboration to set up better infrastructure like a genome centre and translational laboratory in the health system.”

Another successful NUS spin-out is RNA company Ephyra, now based in Cambridge, England, which is developing a new class of therapeutics known as designer sponge RNAs.

Hess is also optimistic that the right ecosystem and projects like 65LAB can make the difference: “Success fosters further success, and we anticipate that as investors see more and more ideas from the excellent academic institutions here translated into successful new therapeutic companies in Singapore, critical inertia will be met and exceeded, allowing Singapore to achieve status as a global biotech centre.”

DDW Volume 25 – Issue 1, Winter 2023/2024

References:

  1. https://www.statista. com/topics/7371/ pharmaceutical-industry-in- singapore/#topicOverview
  2. https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/our- industries/pharmaceuticals-and- biotechnology.html
  3. https://www.a-star.edu.sg/ Research/funding-opportunities/ stdr
  4. https://www.create.edu.sg/about- create/vision/
  5. https://www.sginnovate.com/press- room/talent-shortage-singapores- biotech-sector-set-grow-almost-30- percent-over-next-10-years

DIANA SPENCERAbout the author:

Diana Spencer is Senior Digital Content Editor on DDW. She brings 18 years’ experience in both print and digital editorial roles for B2B publications dedicated to the life sciences sector, including medical and pharmaceutical industry journals/magazines.

 

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