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Feature Articles : Oct 15, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 18)

Singapore Attracts Life Science Companies

Talent, Government Support, and Regulatory Environment Make Ground Fertile for Industry

Back in the 14th century, Singapore was called Temasek, or "Sea Town," because it was naturally situated where sea routes met at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. The British in the 18th century strategically made Singapore a naval base to feed and protect their fleets. This attracted merchants from China, India, Europe, and America.

Today, Singapore continues to capitalize on its geographic location as one of the crossroads of the world to grow life science companies. About 70 airlines serve Singapore, making it a gateway to Southeast Asia.

As a testament to their commitment to the life science industry in the 21st century, Singapore built two state-of-the-art biomedical research parks. The Biopolis, a biomedical research complex of seven buildings that houses 2,000 scientists, opened in September 2003.

The first tenants were the Genome Institute of Singapore and the Bioinformatics Institute. Buildings named Centros, Genome, Matrix, Nanos, and Proteos hold biomedical research institutes of the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR), which oversees scientific efforts under the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Two other buildings, named Chromos and Helios, contain private life science companies, including ES Cell International (www.escellinternational.com), Vanda Pharmaceuticals (www. vandapharma.com), and Johns Hopkins Singapore.

The Biopolis tenants share high-quality technical services, such as DNA sequencing, proteomics, NMR, and FACS (flow activated cell sorting) facilities.

The JTC Corporation built the Biopolis, as well as Tuas Biomedical Park, which is designed for bulk pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and medical-device manufacturing. Among the global companies based in the Tuas Biomedical Park are CIBA Vision (www.cibavision.com), Novartis Singapore Pharmaceutical Manufacturing, and MDS Sciex.

Bioscience Initiative

The Biomedical Sciences group of Singapore's Economic Development Board, Bio*One Capital, and A*STAR work in close partnership to develop, fund, and build life science companies and facilities. The joint initiative, launched in 2000, is paying off. Between 2003 and 2004, manufacturing output in the biomedical sciences sector rose 33%, and employment grew 7% to 9,225 workers.

The new bioscience initiative builds on an established pharmaceutical industry, which started when Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) built a plant to manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients in 1972. Glaxo followed in the early 1980s by constructing a plant to produce Zantac. The popularity of Zantac, "propelled Singapore onto the radar screen of the pharmaceutical industry," says Swan Jin Beh, M.D., director of the Biomedical Sciences Group at the Economic Development Board.

A big wave of investment followed in the 1990s, when several large companies, including Schering-Plough, Wyeth, and Novartis, built manufacturing facilities.

"With that starting point, in 2000, we launched an effort to attract drug discovery and biotechnology companies," says Dr. Beh. In just five years, 25 drug discovery companies have established themselves in Singapore.

"Big pharma companies like Novartis and Lilly opened drug discovery laboratories," says Dr. Beh. "This vote of confidence drew smaller companies." Compared to other Asian countries with emerging life science industries, Singapore offers a cosmopolitan lifestyle. "Americans and Europeans quickly integrate here," says Dr. Beh.

The Biopolis strives to unite academic and industry researchers. For example, the Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI), funded by A*STAR, combines molecular biology, biochemistry, proteomics, and genomics to spearhead bioprocess science and engineering. Their efforts help life science companies to develop better cell culture, fermentation, and separation methods for manufacturing antibodies and recombinant proteins.

Licensing

Cambrex (www.cambrex.com) does not have a facility in Singapore. Instead, Singapore represents an opportunity to license new technologies and sell their biomedical products.

In 2000, Cambrex licensed a recombinant enzyme, Factor C, from the National University of Singapore. Factor C, extracted from crab's blood, detects bacterial endotoxins. Cambrex commercialized Factor C as the PyroGene Recombinant Factor C Endotoxin Detection System to test for contaminants in drugs, vaccines, artificial limbs, and reagents.

Cambrex is also beta testing a new instrument based on the PyroGene platform to monitor water-for-injection systems. "It's the first online water system of its type," says Daniel Marshak, CTO at Cambrex Bioproducts. Cambrex, a leading supplier of cell culture media, normal human cell lines for toxicity testing, and separation and chromatography supplies, also distributes its products in Singapore.

"We're pleased that the Singapore government has invested heavily in biomedical research," adds Marshak.

Biopolis Tenants

Several life science companies in Singapore have strong ties to the U.S. The stem cell therapy company ES Cell International receives financial support from several U. S. agencies, including the NIH, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the technology transfer arm of the University of Wisconsin.

ES Cell International owns six of the 22 human embryonic stem cell lines listed on the NIH Stem Cell Registry. NIH granted ES Cell International an infrastructure enhancement award in 2004.

The JDRF funds research related to transforming human embryonic stem cells into islet cells to treat diabetes. In April 2005, WARF signed an agreement with ES Cell International to distribute each other's stem cell lines to researchers globally.

"Only with such joint undertakings will the exciting potential of embryonic stem cell therapeutics be fully realized," says Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF.

Vanda Pharmaceuticals repositions discarded drugs made by large pharmaceutical companies by using pharmacogenomics to find new indications for them. "Big pharmaceutical companies do not have time to revisit their failures," says Chip Clark, CBO at Vanda. A classic example is Viagra, which Pfizer first intended as a hypertension treatment. Viagra's unexpected erectile dysfunction benefits were observed during clinical trials.

"That was serendipitous," says Clark. "Vanda systematically creates serendipity by looking at gene expression patterns to find new indications or subpopulations of people who will benefit from the drugs."

Vanda's Singapore team uses microarrays and other genotyping tools. The government in Singapore made a significant investment to attract companies like Vanda by building a workforce of people trained in molecular biology and genomics and making it financially worthwhile. "We can accomplish more for less money," says Clark. Vanda's pharmacogenomics team in Singapore has identified three drug candidates that are being evaluated in clinical trials in the U. S.

The Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (www.nitd. novartis.com) is also located in the Biopolis. Before locating to Singapore, Novartis looked at the availability of talent, research environment, public support for biomedical sciences, regulatory environment, and IP protection.

"Singapore meets all these criteria and also established an excellent scientific network to make the biomedical sciences one of its top priorities," says Paul Herring, head of corporate research at Novartis, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland.

In addition, Novartis broke ground in March for a new pharmaceutical production center located at the Tuas Biomedical Park. When completed, the plant will employ 150 people and manufacture ingredients for existing Novartis pharmaceutical products.

Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland established John Hopkins Singapore (www. bms.jhmi.edu) in 1998 to study diseases endemic to Asians. For instance, nasopharyngeal cancer caused by Epstein Barr virus is more prevalent in Asians.

Johns Hopkins Singapore occupies 40,000 square feet in the Biopolis. "The government is committed to making Singapore a center of excellence for biomedical research. As a result, many research institutions headed by prominent scientists are doing a lot of exciting work," says Lawrence Patrick, general manager of Johns Hopkins Singapore.

Tuas Biomedical Park Tenants

CIBA Vision started manufacturing contact lenses at its Singapore facility in March. The 210,000 square foot plant employs 220 people, and will grow to 500 workers. When at full capacity, "it will be our largest manufacturing site in terms of size," says Mike Dilworth, vp, global supply chain for CIBA Vision, based in Atlanta, GA.

The Singapore site manufactures Focus Dailies, a type of contact lens that is replaced daily and need no cleaning. "They're an ideal option for people with allergies, because one-day use reduces the chance of the build-up of pollen and other debris," says Dilworth.

CIBA Vision manufactured more than one billion Focus Dailies in 2004, and the Singapore plant will produce an additional 800 million lenses a year. The company has invested $85 million in the Singapore plant, and plans to invest a total of $250 million over the next few years.

The Singapore facility will include a distribution center and warehouse for a range of lenses that will be distributed globally. "Singapore provides a strategic location for manufacturing and distribution, including good infrastructure, an international airport hub, and technical work force," says Dilworth.

In April, MDS Pharma Services (www.mdsps.com), a provider of innovative drug discovery and development services, hosted the grand opening of its expanded laboratory facility in Singapore. The expanded facility provides central lab testing and global development of clinical trials.

"We run clinical trials for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies worldwide," says Scott Neilson, general manager of global center labs for MDS Pharma Services.

The Singapore location can tap into Asian populations for clinical testing. Singapore's diverse patient population, motivated and experienced investigators, and the government's support for pharmaceutical companies attracted MDS Pharma Services, a part of MDS, headquartered in Toronto, Canada.

MDS Sciex, the scientific instruments division of MDS, will open a new plant in September to manufacture its Cellular Analysis MiWave product line, used for secondary screening in drug discovery.

Later, a line of mass spectrometers will be made there. The plant will employ 50 people when it opens and peak at 100 workers. "We want a significant footprint in one of the fastest growing markets for scientific instruments," says Andy Boorn, Ph.D., president of MDS Sciex.

A full range of fee-for-service chemistry technologies, including medicinal chemistry and custom organic sythesis, are performed by experts at the Albany Molecular Research Singapore, a wholly owned subsidiary of Albany Molecular Research (www.amri. com) in Albany, NY.

"The large concentration of pharmaceutical companies made Singapore a logical place for a new location," says Michael Trova, Ph.D., vice president of chemistry. The Singapore facility will help the company to provide chemistry services at competitive prices to international clients. The staff of 10 in Singapore is expected to grow to 40 workers.