EXCLUSIVE - Research for impact - the SMART way forward
In December 2017, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) launched two new Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), targeting the areas of precision agriculture and antimicrobial resistance.
The Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) IRG seeks to develop nanosensor-based detection technologies to be applied in precision agriculture for the discovery, optimisation and translation of plant biosynthetic pathways for improved yields in production. The Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) IRG aims to identify new antimicrobial drug resistance mechanisms, with the goal of developing new therapeutics diagnostics and drug delivery technologies and approaches.
On the sidelines of EmTech Asia 2018, OpenGov spoke to Professor Daniel Hastings, CEO and Director of SMART to learn more about the new IRGs and the current emphasis on translating research into real-world applications.
Antimicrobial Resistance IRG
Talking about the AMR IRG, Prof Hastings said, “The big problem is the continuing increase of bacteria which are resistant to more and more of the antibiotics we have, for a range of reasons. It’s a worldwide problem. But in Singapore there is a national programme to address this.”
Late last year, the Singapore Government launched a National Strategic Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance. The Plan has five core strategies revolving around education; surveillance and risk assessment; research; prevention and control of infection; and optimisation of antimicrobial use.
The AMR IRG is involved in the science and research aspect. The programme is bringing a set of convergent technologies aiming to tackle AMR in Singapore and worldwide.
“They are looking at developing a deeper understanding of how is it that some of these bacteria have actually evolved a resistance to the antibiotics, going down to the level of what occurs in the body of a cell. How is it that they manage to resist these antibiotics, understanding the molecular mechanisms. Secondly, they are going after the questions of given that we understand this, can we actually turn off that ability,” Prof Hastings explained.
The team is also taking a look at the existing classes of drugs to see if any of these drugs can actually be directly used or if they can be repurposed to go after some of these drug resistant organisms. Another approach is exploiting host immunity to kill resistant microbes.
The researchers are looking at bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria), and genetically engineering them to kill the drug-resistant bacteria, along with exploring the use of nanoparticles for capsulation technology to deliver drugs in a more efficient way, as well as diagnosing and treating AMR in the human microbiome. New drugs are also being developed, with an attempt to shorten the usual timeframe for bringing drugs to market.
Prof Hastings said that all this is part of the bigger national programme in Singapore.
“What you do in hospitals, what you do in public education, what you do in the feedstocks and so on. You actually have to address the whole. Just doing the science in itself would be insufficient,” he said.
Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision IRG
The underlying belief is that with technology embedded into the plants, it’s possible to understand in detail what’s happening with these plants so that their yield can be substantially increased. This is significant as many existing technologies employed to understand plant biology are destructive (i.e. requires the grinding up of leaves and plant tissues before analysis).
The emphasis on real-time and non-destructive methods of probing particular biological pathways within the plant offers unprecedented insights and an ability to better select for desirable traits.
DiSTAP could contribute solutions to the challenges of urban food and nutrient production, reducing Singapore’s dependence on imports of foodstuff (though not eliminate it).
While the nanosensors and optical technologies will be initially deployed for use in urban farming of leafy green vegetables, they should have broad applicability in precision agriculture. The technologies developed for highly resource-efficient urban farming can be exported to other countries generating economic value.
Translating for impact
During the past few years, there have been scores of collaborative initiatives between government, academia and industry to drive translation of research into products and applications with socio-economic impact.
We asked Prof Hastings about where SMART fits in this ecosystem. He replied that if we compare Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan with the RIE 2015 plan, there’s a great deal more emphasis on translation. And SMART is playing a key role in the translation process. It is participating in the incubators coming up in Singapore. The two new IRGs, DISTAP and AMR, are also part of its efforts.
SMART also has an Innovation Centre, which administers a Grant Programme enabling faculty and students to pursue new avenues of market-driven research and participate in programmes to help accelerate their innovations toward commercialisation.
“SMART will continue to bring a substantial MIT presence here, where we take what we know about research which we do with excellence, and we collaborate with the universities, NUS, NTU, SUTD and SMU, and we increase the gain on translation. Because that goes with RIE 2020 and it is what MIT knows very well,” said Prof Hastings.
More can be done
But has the translation landscape improve in Singapore over the past few years? We asked Prof Hastings what more can be done?
There is a lot more government funding available now for translation related initiatives. There is a much better understanding of where the gaps are in the funding streams.
But Prof Hastings added that there needs to be development work in a number of areas. Firstly, the size of the venture capital (VC) community here is probably not as large as it could be. And secondly the amount of resources available in deep tech can be improved.
A lot of resources are available for app tech, such as apps for shopping, ride hailing. Prof Hastings said that those are also important, but they are relatively easy to do.
“What Singapore needs to do, and they are aware of this, is focus on things which need longer development timeframes, things with physical or biological instantiations, as opposed to app instantiations.”
“Medical devices, biology combined with IT, autonomous vehicles are in that class. I would say more needs to be done in that area. And doing things to attract more VC money,” Prof Hastings said.