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EXCLUSIVE - Research for impact - the SMART way forward

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.