During the opening of the World Health Summit in 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned that although Singapore had made progress on public health care, there was still room for improvement and that learning from other countries could help the country achieve this.

Indeed, Singapore has collaborated with various countries on areas pertaining to healthcare. The collaboration between Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Japan’s flagship research institute for natural sciences, RIKEN is one of the recent collaborations between a Singaporean and an overseas institute. RIKEN had also previously worked with The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (also known as A*Star), which is a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore that aims to foster scientific talent and research.


The three-year agreement between NTU and RIKEN was aimed at advancing research in human biology and developing innovative solutions for healthcare. This agreement would mark the beginning of the first research collaboration between the two-top research institutes of Asia. 

Under this agreement, a RIKEN-NTU Research Centre for Human Biology would be set up at NTU Singapore while an NTU-RIKEN Research Centre would be established in Japan. The Co-Directors helming these centres are Professor Balázs Gulyás of NTU Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and Dr. Atsushi Iriki of RIKEN.

Having the infrastructure in both countries through this partnership would allow for both RIKEN and NTU to leverage on their state-of-the-art research facilities – on top of sharing their deep scientific expertise.

The focus on initial research & projects

When the partnership was announced recently, it was reported that several projects have already been identified for further study. These projects would involve about 20 researchers including students, who would be roped in at a later stage.

The initial research projects that these centres would embark on include studying the interaction between the mind and body and the understanding of various diseases, particularly during the pre-clinical phase as this is when important feasibility testing and data collection are conducted. The collaboration would also involve researchers working together to address major health challenges like diabetes, neurological and psychiatric diseases.

Studying mind-body interactions for diagnosis & treatment

An example of a study that would be worked upon by the researchers is a project that aims to discover the complex mechanisms of how the mind and body interact, including how social stress affects the microorganism ecosystem in the intestines and vice versa. It is postulated that the results of this study would lead to more naturalistic therapies, when there is a better understanding of how cognitive functions are closely linked to bodily physical states.

Another example of a study is a research project that aims to develop novel biomarkers for early predictive diagnoses and treatment of diseases. The researchers would also apply artificial intelligence, such as machine learning or big-data processing, to patients’ digital medical records so that they can detect diseases early, before serious symptoms show.

Through this partnership, both RIKEN scientists and NTU experts can explore new areas of research in human biology. NTU Chief of Staff and Vice President (Research), Professor Lam Khin Yong, added that students would also benefit on this partnership as they would now be exposed to ground-breaking research being held by top scientists at both the institutes.

Mr Shigeharu Kato, Executive Director of RIKEN, shared that he was hopeful that the partnership would grow to include other RIKEN centres and NTU faculties beyond the human biology discipline. This would result in “interdisciplinary research breakthroughs that will benefit all humanity”.

Together with research breakthroughs, the above partnership would also provide pertinent healthcare insights for Singapore, Japan as well as globally. For instance, the efforts to focus on diabetes as part of the institutes’ initial research study is relevant vis-à-vis an increasing number of diabetes reported in Singapore, Japan as well as globally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016 reported that the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014.

Pertaining to local context, this partnership is also a positive development, in line with Singapore’s efforts to continue learning from other countries and sharing their knowledge in areas of healthcare. MIMS

Read more:
5-star hospitals in Singapore: Pampering patients
The collaboration between Singapore and Vietnam in healthcare
Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) between Singapore and China in healthcare