As the iconic centerpiece of Singapore’s biomedical sciences research, Biopolis is a burgeoning hub of local and international research organizations united in their commitment to pursue top-level research and development. Since its opening in September 2003, Biopolis has garnered a formidable reputation across a range of fields, including cancer biology, bioinformatics, immunology, genomics, stem cell research and bioengineering, helping Singapore to gain prominence on the international medical scene.
From an initial cluster of seven buildings, Biopolis has grown into a vast research complex with an area of more than 3.5 million square feet that comprises 13 buildings and is home to a community of over 2,500 scientists and support staff with access to state-of-the-art facilities. The extensive architectural project, the construction of which was led by famed architect Zaha Hadid, is currently undergoing a fifth phase of development that will see the opening of additional ‘ready-to-go’ laboratories for basic research.
Where industry meets academia
Biopolis brings together research groups from ten institutes and entities that are overseen by A*STAR’s Biomedical Research Council and hosts the laboratories of other research institutions and leading companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novartis, Procter & Gamble (P&G), Roche, Chugai and Takeda.
In 2003, Novartis established the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases at Biopolis, which is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and tuberculosis. More recently, in 2011, P&G invested S$250 million to set up an innovation center in Biopolis, and in 2012 Chugai opened a research subsidiary, Chugai Pharmabody Research, that focuses on the discovery of new antibody drug candidates. “Biopolis is a flourishing ecosystem that is now also spawning exciting start-up companies,” says Sir David Lane, chief scientist at A*STAR.
Aided by A*STAR’s Biopolis Shared Facilities initiative, the highly integrated networks that exist at Biopolis are enabling translational, cross-disciplinary research to thrive, which in turn is having a remarkable impact on the economy of Singapore. The biomedical sciences sector now employs around 16,000 skilled workers and accounted for S$29.4 billion of Singapore’s GDP in 2012 — a fivefold increase from S$6 billion in 2000. The government of Singapore recognizes the biomedical sciences industry as the fourth pillar of the nation’s manufacturing economy, alongside the electronics, engineering and chemical industries.
“The success of Biopolis can be attributed to the convergence of science, medicine and engineering, as well as the open innovation partnerships between public research institutes and corporate laboratories,” says Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of A*STAR. “Our collaborations also point to our unique ability to bring together public sector agencies to work seamlessly and engage industry for R&D and innovation.”
Advances in healthcare
By breaking down traditional barriers between academic and clinical disciplines, collaborations between A*STAR and private companies at Biopolis are yielding many benefits and insights into human health and disease. Notably, the A*STAR Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC), set up in 2007, has succeeded in establishing a fully developed drug discovery platform in collaboration with academic and industrial partners. Other significant achievements over the last decade include the development of a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) detection kit by the A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore and Roche Diagnostics, which has been successfully deployed at the Singapore General Hospital.
Meanwhile, at the A*STAR Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), researchers worked with Genelabs Diagnostics to develop an alternative 15-minute SARS testing kit that received acclaim for its ease of use. In cancer diagnostics, the IMCB has collaborated with Hitachi Software Engineering in Japan to develop a new way of identifying subtle changes in DNA that are of vital importance for the early detection and diagnosis of cancer.
Research at Biopolis is continually driving the development of innovative solutions and technologies with a truly global reach, such as those that could help to manage future influenza pandemics. Working with Cytos Biotechnology, the ETC has advanced Singapore’s first H1N1 influenza vaccine to a Phase 1 clinical trial. Scientists at the A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute have developed a research tool called FluSurver that is capable of providing valuable information about influenza virus mutations. Already, FluSurver is enabling health authorities around the world to rapidly screen influenza sequence data online, further strengthening the global influenza surveillance network.
Recent advances in stem cell research have radically changed the biomedical landscape. For example, in studies conducted at the A*STAR Biological Resource Centre in Biopolis, researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have developed new ways to target difficult-to-treat breast cancers using neural stem cells and novel drug screening methods in cancer stem cells.
“Beyond the biopharmaceutical sector, research at Biopolis has now diversified and expanded into other fast-growing industry sectors, including medical technology, personal care and food and nutrition,” says Lim. “A*STAR researchers are teaming up with university and clinical partners to establish the Singapore Centre for Nutritional Sciences, Metabolic Diseases and Human Development (SiNMeD), which will study obesity, maternal and infant nutrition, and child development in Asian populations.” Additionally, in collaboration with Singapore’s National Skin Centre and Nanyang Technological University, A*STAR is launching the Skin Research Institute of Singapore, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will focus on key areas of research, such as eczema, allergy and inflammation and aging.
Expanding Singapore’s knowledge base
Biopolis is widely viewed as a gateway to economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region and offers a stimulating environment for graduates and postgraduate students seeking multidisciplinary training in the biosciences. Since 2001, the A*STAR Graduate Academy based at Biopolis has accepted more than 1,200 PhD scholars through its various scholarship and fellowship programs. “The superb equipment, facilities and inspiring senior scientists at Biopolis offer a wonderful opportunity for career growth,” notes Lane.
Situated at one-north, a 200-hectare, purpose-built high-tech zone launched by the government of Singapore in 2001, Biopolis is part of a larger plan for development that includes Fusionopolis, a science hub dedicated to the advancement of information and communications technologies, media, the physical sciences and engineering, which Lane expects to play an increasing role in the future of Biopolis. “Biopolis will go from strength to strength, broadening its engagement as the pace and reach of synthetic biology — the engineering of life — extends to fields previously dominated by physics and chemistry.”
By attracting a rich diversity of international talent, Biopolis is widening and deepening Singapore’s knowledge base while providing unprecedented opportunities for biomedical discovery. “We have achieved a lot in a very short period of time through Biopolis and the wider biomedical sciences research community in Singapore,” says Lim. “However, we have to realize that when it comes to research, especially biomedical research, it often takes a longer time.” Emphasizing the importance of nurturing research excellence, Lim adds: “We want this message to extend beyond Biopolis to become a part of the fabric of Singapore.”