In June 2000, at around the same time the first draft map of the complete human genome was unveiled by the International Human Genome Project, Singapore kick-started a major biomedical sciences initiative by opening the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). This new institute, officially launched under the banner of the Singapore Genomics Program, was set up to study the genetic make-up of the diverse Asian population. Its primary aim? To help develop new diagnostic methods and treatments for diseases affecting Asians and thereby to further improve health and welfare in the region.
In March this year, Edison Liu, an American of Hong Kong Chinese descent, arrived in Singapore to take up the position of GIS executive director. Liu, a graduate of Stanford University and a pioneering cancer scientist, represents the kind of foreign talent Singapore is only too happy to "accommodate" in order to realise its goal of becoming a biomedical hub.
At Stanford, Liu completed degrees in chemistry, psychology, and medicine. Subsequent appointments saw him heading the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine and the Clinical Science section of the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. He also spent time at the University of San Francisco, California, and conducted research that led him to discover the therapeutic relevance of mutations of cancer-associated genes. In speaking with Next Wave Singapore, Liu demonstrated a great deal of enthusiasm about his new post. Its main objectives, he says, can be split into two major functions--a national function and a scientific function.
In terms of its national function, he continued, the GIS "mission" is to be a world-class institute investigating genomic questions having international impact and recognition. "On a national level, Singapore wants to be among the leaders in biomedical science," he said. Liu also suggested a number of other benefits to Singapore. Not only would the institute act as a training ground for a new generation of Singaporeans pursuing careers in biomedical research, "it would also provide a deep technological platform in genomics to worthy projects from scientists residing in Singapore." And it would "act as an academic partner for commercial interests based in Singapore or abroad."
On a scientific level, he says that GIS has three organising principles: (1) to concentrate on understanding cell biology and disease by linking gene expression data to sequence information and using that to interpret cellular processes. The institute plans to focus particularly on RNA--its complexity, configuration, and its use as a tool to analyse biological questions; (2) to investigate the genetic architecture of Asian populations. Once this work is completed, it will become fundamental for studies in gene discovery; and (3) to concentrate on the interface between genomics and medicine.
Singapore as a nation has the kind of infrastructure, capabilities, and geography that make it an attractive location for commercial collaborations, suggests Liu. And he believes that GIS will take it a long way toward achieving its aim of becoming a centre of science. "We want to train a new generation, we want to provide some deep technological infrastructure, and to be an attractor for excellent talent from all over the world to come and feel at home."
GIS, which temporarily is located on the National University of Singapore campus, is very cosmopolitan with scientists from all around the world working there. Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indians, and Americans are currently involved, while groups are also expected to arrive from France and the UK, as are some Canadians and U.S.-based Chinese scientists.
When asked how GIS was luring talented scientists from abroad, Liu said: "There are several very compelling arguments that we place in front of them: First, the type of resources that will be available to conduct their science in an unfettered manner are going to be rare to find anywhere in the world. Second, like astronomy, you don't just go and build your own telescope and think it's going to be world-class research--you have to go to various other places, where the telescopes are, to do your experiments. Genomic centres are similar in the sense that they're so costly and they're such big platforms. You need the platforms to be available for you to do your work. And third, the opportunity to join in a whole national venture. It's great to be on the ground floor of some interesting things ... on something that's on the way up."
In terms of pay, the conditions for foreign scientists, Liu thinks, are good. "Singapore pays very reasonable salaries by world standards. And now the grant situation is such that there is more money 'in the pot' to do the research. I think we have some challenges ahead of us but all the conditions are right."
Liu's sentiments tend to echo the general feeling within Singapore's biomedical community at the moment as the Singapore government goes all out to grow the country's life sciences industry as the "fourth pillar" of its manufacturing sector.