Singapore: A Prime Location for Biotechnology Companies

The Singaporean government has been stepping up its efforts to build the country into a biotechnology hub. With more than S$3 billion (US$ 1.7 billion) set aside for development of biomedical sciences in Singapore over the next five years, Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) forecasts that the biotech industry will contribute at least 10% of the country’s total manufacturing output by 2010. In their process of establishing this knowledge industry, the government is finding that Singapore’s unique conditions are ideal for the development of technologies often considered controversial in other countries.

Chairman of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Philip Yeo, commented on his efforts to recruit the best scientists from around the world, “I promise them secure funding for their research, reasonable time horizons, the best facilities I can afford, and enough mice for their research.” Although the last point may seem rather trivial, the need for adequate animal test subjects is of great concern to scientists. Singapore’s Biopolis, planned to house public research institutes, private R&D centers, companies, and over 4,000 scientists, will have enough space for 150,000 mice in three levels of underground laboratories. Yeo jokes, “Try to get animal facilities in a place like the United Kingdom and be careful they don’t burn your car.” Such animal activist demonstrations are highly unlikely in Singapore.

Besides incentives such as proper facilities and funding, Singapore’s laws towards stem cell research are less restrictive than those of other countries including the United States. In the U.S., federally funded scientists are only able to work on stem-cell lines that were already in existence by 2001. Singapore does not have this obstacle. Although human-reproductive cloning is banned in Singapore, its laws will allow scientists to extract stem cells from adult human tissue, aborted fetuses and surplus embryos from fertility treatments that are less than 14 days old. The legislation is expected to pass by the second half of 2003. The law will also allow stem cells to be harvested for “therapeutic cloning” (creation of human embryos for the isolation of stem cells for research purposes).

Already, some of the nascent biotech companies in Singapore are showing signs of growth. ES Cell International (ESI), a Singapore-registered biotech start-up, supplied researchers in Europe and the US with its first batch of stem-cell lines in 2001. The company has since delivered stem-cell lines to 60 laboratories worldwide. ESI also boasts the expertise of Alan Colman, one of the scientists who created “Dolly the sheep” in Edinburgh in 1996.