Singapore carves niche in stem cell research


  • World
  • Friday, 26 Aug 2005

By Mia Shanley

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - South Korea stole headlines after creating the world's first cloned dog, but the tiny city-state of Singapore is quietly preparing to take the fruits of its stem cell research straight to the market. 

Steven Fang, chief executive of Singapore-based CyGenics, said more Singapore-based firms are taking the greenfield research of U.S. and Korean scientists and turning it into marketable technology safe for human use. 

A biotechnologist processes cord blood samples to be cryopreserved at a Singapore laboratory August 26, 2005. Since 1988, stem cells have been used to treat an increasing number of diseases, including blood and metabolic disorders, immuno-deficiency ailments, and auto-immune diseases. (REUTERS/Luis Enrique Ascui)

CyGenics develops and markets adult stem-cell related products, services and technologies. 

"Stem cell development needs to be turned into a mature technology that is of meaningful use to humans," said Fang, at the company's blood bank, where umbilical cord blood is frozen for possible future use in the fight against lymphoma, anemia and bone marrow cancer. 

"We are trying to make the stem cell technology safe for humans to use." 

In 2002, a Singapore boy suffering from leukemia was treated with stem cells from his baby sister, whose parents had stored blood from her umbilical cord at the company's storage facility, CordLife. The boy is now in remission. 

Researchers believe that stem cells could one day be used to provide individually tailored tissue and organ transplants, or repair spinal cord injuries. 

When asked whether Asia was leading the stem cell research race, Fang said: "To a great extent, yes. Asia got a head start." 

Researchers in Asia got a boost in funding after the Bush administration sought restrictions on government support for stem-cell research in the United States. 

"But in practical terms, the U.S. can catch up," said Fang, who is also the chairman of BioSingapore, an association that represents biomedical enterprises. 

Singapore has promoted the biomedical sector with grants, tax incentives and the 2003 opening of a S$300 million biotech park. The grants have attracted foreign experts like Alan Colman, who was part of the team that created Dolly the sheep in Scotland. 

Federal funding for work with stem cells taken from human embryos is limited in the U.S., due mainly to ethical reasons, though researchers can use private money as they wish. 

CyGenics, founded in 2004, does not conduct embryonic stem cell research, though Singapore laws allow for therapeutic, not reproductive, cloning. 

READY TO MULTIPLY 

The loss-making firm now has more than 3,000 clients in Singapore and receives requests from around the world for its storage services. In March, it launched a new facility in Hong Kong aimed at the North Asia market and the company said it is already taking in a large volume of clients. 

Fang said the company makes money from its cord blood bank but is spending heavily on research and development. It expects its cell sciences business, which manufactures, markets and distributes biomedical products to break even this year. 

CyGenics wants to multiply. 

"We see a need to be global, to have a global footprint," Fang said. "We want to expand our facility base." 

Executives want to set up facilities in China, but also sees the country as one of the toughest markets to break into because of regulatory issues. 

Fang sees Asia and Europe as holding the greatest potential for expansion as the U.S. is already a very mature market. 

"Growing organically is very important, but joint-ventures or mergers and acquisitions are equally important. We are eyeing deals in the U.S., Australia and Asia," he said. 

India, China, Australia, Britain and Scandinavia were near-term targets for expansion, he said. CyGenics has two labs in the U.S., where it has a S$2.9 million contract with the Department of Defense to test vaccines against biological agents like anthrax. 

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