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Singapore's push to develop new lifesaving medications
Bernadette Nunn reports on Singapore's role in medicine development

Singapore has long had a reputation as a technology hub now it's aiming to become a regional leader in the development of new medicines.

At the same time, Singapore's leading researchers say it's about time pharmaceutical companies paid more attention to Asian patients, who suffer different rates of disease and react differently to drugs than patients elsewhere.

Bernadette Nunn reports.
BERNADETTE NUNN, REPORTER: This is the first bioanalytical lab in Asia.

The Singapore facility can process samples taken in clinical trials to test how a drug is working. Until now, these had to be sent back to labs in Europe and the United States.

DR SYLVAIN MANDEVILLE, LABORATORY DIRECTOR: The main advantage that we will have is of course speed. If the work has been done here in Singapore, just - we can generate result within two or three days of sample receipt, whereas if you would send it outside it would take you maybe five to seven working days before you could get those results.

BERNADETTE NUNN: Every extra week exponentially increases the cost of a study. Being able to process samples on the island not only saves time, it minimises the risks involved transports samples around the world. If they're held up at customs and the samples they lose viability, compromising the entire clinical trial.

SYLVAIN MANDEVILLE: You would have to repeat the entire study.

BERNADETTE NUNN: Australian company, CPR Pharma Services, runs a similar laboratory in Adelaide. Its expansion into Singapore follows a number of big western pharmaceutical companies who have based their Asian operations on the island.

The country specialises in phase one clinical trials, which test whether a new trug drug is safe in humans. The critical first step as pharmaceutical companies race to get new drugs on the market.

JASON VALENTINE, CEO, PHARMA SERVICES: Phase one trials are where a lot of drugs fall down. This is the first time they have gone into humans.

There's a lot of competition out there in many therapeutic areas, and companies are always looking to be first to market. So any time saving in early phase clinical trials, phase one studies, is an advantage.

BERNADETTE NUNN: For Singapore's National Cancer Centre, being able to process samples locally doesn't just save people but potentially lives. It has 140 ongoing clinical trials, most focussed on cancer patients.

For many, being involved in a trial for a new therapy, or combination of drugs is their only hope.

DR CHOO SU PIN, MEDICAL ONCOLOGIST, NATIONAL CANCER CENTRE: That's when having clinical trials gives them the opportunity to get drugs that they cannot afford free of charge.

Usually you are doing phase one studies on patients with advanced disease. And the turnaround time to get a result may take one week to two weeks, and that really delays the start of treatment for patient.

So having a bioanalytical lab at our doorstep really helps speed things up.

BERNADETTE NUNN: CPR Pharma predicts its operation will have 15 staff and be a $6 million business been three years. The company isn't just targeting western pharmaceuticals, but also Indian and Chinese companies.

JASON VALENTINE: In India there are issues with the regulations, where intellectual property developed outside of India, the early phase first in human clinical trials, can't be performed in India. they have to be done elsewhere. So there's inherent advantage there. The Chinese process takes eight to 12 months to go through the regulatory process to initiate a clinical trial.

So we believe that the eight weeks in Singapore is going to benefit those companies significantly.

BERNADETTE NUNN: The founding director of the National Cancer Centre says Singapore is well positioned to become a hub for clinical trials in Asia.

PROFESSOR SOO KHEE CHEE, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CANCER CENTRE: We are a blend of three different races at least, which represents almost half of the population of the world: the Chinese, the Indians and the Malays.

BERNADETTE NUNN: He says Singapore offers quality research offering a competitive niche over India and China. They dominate later phase trials which require large numbers of patients.

SYLVAIN MANDEVILLE: India always had some quality issue. You have some very good sides and some very bad sides. China is the same. Whereas in Singapore there is only very goods sides.

BERNADETTE NUNN: The investment in Singapore's clinical trial sector reflects the shifting focus of the big multinational pharmaceutical companies.

JASON VALENTINE: Biotech and pharmacompanies that are struggling through these tough economic times and seeing the Asian middle class as an opportunity to gain revenues that they had potentially lost in their existing markets in western countries.

SOO KHEE CHEE: With the rising middle class that we have in the Asia Pacific region, the realisation is there that they will be missing out on a very important opportunity if they do not actively research on diseases in this part of the world.

BERNADETTE NUNN: Forty per cent of lung cancer patients in Asia demonstrate a mutation that is rare in Westerns.

Gastric cancer is much more common in Asia. Sixty per cent of stomach cancers worldwide occur in East Asia, and half of all cases of liver cancer worldwide are occur in China.

SOO KHEE CHEE: It's important to have those clinical trials done here and for local volunteers because we have different responses to drugs. We have different mutations in our diseases which clearly will then make drugs more responsive.

CHOO SU PIN: Asia makes - absolutely makes sense for us to want to understand whether we are really treating our patients in the right way or not and whether we are treating our patients effectively or not.

What we found in the west may not always apply in the east.
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