Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I know that biotech research in Singapore is booming because the media says so

The Straits Times carried an article in today’s (9 September 2008) print edition on how Yoshiaki Ito’s team had discovered how a tumor suppressor gene RUNX3 is implicated in colorectal cancer.

Periodically, the local media likes to run articles like this that purport to put Singapore on the global research map. The headlines are usually fairly grandiose, and frequently mention how local research will help to find the cure for cancer. Articles like this help to convey the message that we’re not spending billions of dollars on research for nothing.

Granted, the research is probably impactful, and was published in a prestigious journal, but I wonder how many people realize just how little this means in the grand scheme of things.

First of all, research related to oncogenes is relatively widespread these days. Today is not the 70’s, when the gene for p53 was first discovered, so in terms of scientific impact, research like Ito’s isn’t especially groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Certainly, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in the search for a cure for cancer.

[Aside, p53 was identified by a team of which David Lane was a part of. He was brought in to Singapore by A*Star a few years back, but has since left for another appointment. As distinguished as he is, I have heard from someone who used to work in his lab in Singapore that he spent an inordinate amount of time watching cricket in his office.

For all that the PM likes to say about Singaporeans not being 'hungry' enough, we certainly like to hire foreigners that ought to be put out to pasture already. Personally, I'm not surprised. It's a lot easier for a bureaucrat who knows nothing about innovation to justify hiring a research brand name than an up and coming under thirty-fiver. Certainly it's easier to explain things to the boss if the whole biomed shebang collapses in an abject mess, e.g. But I hired the best! Who knew that they were over the hill and unproductive?

But I digress. :o) ]

Second, if in the ‘grand scheme of things’ we’re referring to Singapore’s success as a biomedical hub, this discovery is again nothing to be impressed about.

Viable diagnostic kits based on this discovery are, in Ito’s words, years away, and who knows if a commercially successful product will eventually come to market?

One of the ugly truths of Singapore’s foray into biomedical research is that despite more than ten years of investment, we have had very little to show for in terms of economic success. We have had better luck with pharmaceutical manufacturing, but that is to be expected, as we have offered the same deal to big pharma as we have to all other MNCs, namely tax breaks, land, fast track approval, political patronage, and a skilled, pliant workforce. Despite the giant sucking sound emanating from China and India, corporations are still going to invest in places like Singapore if only to not put all their supply chain eggs in one basket.

So what reasons do I have to offer for stating that Singapore has not been very successful in its biomedical, and more broadly speaking, science research enterprise?

Sometimes, it really does help to have friends who are government scholars or who work in relatively high responsibility positions in the public sector.

A friend who works at EDB told me that a few years ago many foreign companies in general did not want to set up research labs here to do really serious or important research. Labs to do yield optimization, process streamlining-type research are ok. But the new new things will not be discovered in labs here. Manufacturing-type investments were much easier to score (Think biologics manufacturers like Lonza or Genentech). I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last few years.

I have it on good authority from someone who works at Exploit Technologies that they have serious difficulty attracting companies to license technologies. In most cases, the technologies are simply not viable, don’t perform as claimed, or are a bad fit for the companies’ existing business models.

A simple check on the Exploit website shows only a handful of ‘success stories’, if they can even be called that, and many of them are engineering related rather than biomedical related. SIMTECH in particular, has been doing fairly well, which may be expected due to its close collaboration with the manufacturing industry.

A similar check on Bio*One Capital turns up a similar story. Only a handful of companies have Singapore operations. Notably, there has not been a successful IPO for any Singapore-based Bio*One Capital funded company and only a few successful exit-by-acquisitions. And this is after Bio*One has been in existence for something like 10 years. If Bio*One was a private VC, it should have gone out of business already.

A dirty little secret is that some of the companies in Bio*One Capital’s stable are already defunct, despite their logos still being on the website. I should know, one of them just vacated the premises one floor down from my office a few months ago.

It’s evident that Singapore’s research drive isn’t as successful as the media would like to paint it. Indeed, it faces some monumental challenges. I have my own take on some of these problems, which I have seen few commentators anywhere else speak on, and I will comment on these in a future post.


Shuwen on the Sunny Coast said...

Hi, I was googling the biotech scene in Sg and came across your post. I'm pursuing my PhD at UCLA in the US and am planning to come home to contribute my 2 cents to our research scene.

There are a couple of us Singaporeans here doing research and here's our take...

The media always tends to paint a glossy picture, after all, that's what hype is all about. We should be careful not to be throwing bricks at Sg's fledgling efforts to be world class, it is all too easy to be critical.

Media release has its purpose as well. Besides rewarding the researchers for a job well done, it also inspires future scientists to take up research in this field.
Real breakthroughs in research are rare. There are hundreds of high quality universities and research centers in the world competing for ideas and attention.

We should still publish and be proud of our work even if it is a minor step. If you consider where we were and came from, we're already punching above our weight. As Singaporeans overseas, we know it and feel it very strongly.

Some real benefits of employing a well known professor is his/her ability to bring in money and good people. Whether good people would follow the professor to Singapore is another matter.

Research is often thankless, let's be more appreciative of the hard working people who spend so much of their life in research and publish their hard earned results, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Cancer will be cured one drug, one signaling molecule, one pathway at a time and collectively in our little corners all over the world, people are chipping away at it furiously.

To be able to publish and leave a record of our work is what makes us human. The publication will be in records forever or at least until our race dies out.

Whoever came out with the vision of building a biotech hub in Singapore has already done a very good job. It is up to the people to fully utilize the opportunities provided. It is impossible to build Rome overnight, but surely we need to start somewhere.

mjuse said...

It's been a while since I wrote this, but no harm revisiting this topic.

First of all, I am a researcher also, as you might have guessed if you were a regular reader of this blog, so I have no beef with publishing even minor results or doing less than groundbreaking science. I certainly am not unappreciative of hardworking researchers everywhere.

I don't think I have been overly critical in this post. And even if I had been, one of the primary motivators of my writing is to provide some balance to the hyped up local media that most Singaporeans consume on a daily basis. I like to present anecdotal and non-anecdotal information that seldom finds its way to the local media.

As for the vision of building a biotech hub, criticism does not amount to denigration. I am merely pointing out the fact that things are far less rosy than they are made out to be, and my criticism is not purely nitpicking. I have provided some constructive opinions in a subsequent post, if you had cared to read further. In addition, I am hardly the sole critic of Singapore's grand biotech ambitions. No less a personage as Lee Wei Ling has made very public her misgivings how we are spending money on research and development in Singapore.