Singapore’s diverse, highly globalised business and academic communities, advanced infrastructure and government investment make it well-suited to high-technology industries such as the life sciences.

Here are 5 areas in which Singapore is contributing to medical research and development.

1. Building a common genomic database for more efficient healthcare

“Genome analytics is getting more and more powerful and is pervading all aspects of science and biomedicine, both on the research side and on the clinical side,” says Dr. Shyam Prabhakar, a group leader at the A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). But the scale of resources needed to compute and store vast quantities of genomic data remains a challenge.

The Centre for Big Data and Integrative Genomics (c-Big), a joint collaboration among four institutes at A*STAR is Singapore’s answer to this issue. Launched last November, c-Big’s objectives include the establishment of a genomic database (expected to become available next year) to aid more precise diagnoses of diseases and treatments, prevention of the next viral pandemic, and pinpointing the source of a disease outbreak

SG10K, one of its larger projects, involves building a 10,000-strong database of homegrown genomes to understand genetic diversity within Singapore. Such a local database would facilitate precision medicine, a healthcare approach where medical treatment is customised to individual patients.

“Data analytics can offer physicians the evidence needed to make more effective decisions, which will benefit their patients,” says bioinformatician Feng Mengling.

2. New gene test for early detection of heart problems

Inherited heart conditions affect one in 100 people, and may cause problems such as sudden death or heart attacks at a very young age. The chance of them being genetically inherited by one’s offspring is 50%.

“With the old technology, you can only screen two to three genes so you may miss out on some genes, and the long time taken (about six months) may create anxiety in patients,” said Professor Stuart Cook, Tanoto Foundation professor of cardiovascular medicine at SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre.

A new gene test, which screens 174 genes suspected of causing 17 inherited cardiac conditions at once, has been developed by the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) with Imperial College London. Available at NHCS for about S$1,000, patients may get their report in about a month. Such a test would put to rest fears of heart conditions in family members of patients carrying the gene mutation, and allow them to avoid lifelong monitoring.

3. Killing bacteria in seconds

Southeast Asian countries are reported to have higher rates of drug resistance compared to their European and North American counterparts, according to a research by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. Conventional antimicrobial agents in common cleaning products, such as triclosan, kill bacteria without destroying the cell membrane, creating drug-resistant superbugs.

Hence, researchers at the A*Star Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have developed a new synthetic material, imidazolium oligomers that can kill 99.7% of E-coli bacteria within 30 seconds, where existing antibacterial products take minutes to hours. Some strains of E-coli can cause severe diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever.

This novel material can be used in consumer and household products, as well as the coating on surfaces in hospitals - common breeding grounds of superbugs. It is also effective against other common strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Candida albicans.

4. Helping the immune system fight cancer

With cancer still a principal cause of death in Singapore, the emerging field of immunotherapy offers hope to those with advanced, difficult-to-treat cancers. Unlike the many side effects associated with conventional chemotherapy, immunotherapeutic drugs stimulate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells.

“There are currently (immunotherapy) clinical trials in nearly every single tumour type... 2017 will see the emergence of a slew of clinical trial data, which will be beneficial for nearly all cancer types including bladder, breast, gastric, head and neck cancers,” said Dr. Ravindran Kanesvaran, president of the Singapore Society of Oncology.

5. Paving the way for faster treatment of epilepsy

Epilepsy is still an untreatable neurological disorder as current research to identify new anti-epileptic drugs has been largely unsuccessful due to the method of targeting genes — one at a time — to find suitable targets and develop drugs is ineffective and expensive.

A research collaboration between the Centre for Computational Biology at Duke-NUS Medical School and Imperial College London has yielded the discovery of a 320-strong gene network associated with rare and common forms of epilepsy.

The researchers plan to exploit this novel network-biology approach to discover of new drugs for specific forms of epilepsy and other untreatable neuropsychiatric disorders. MIMS

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