Next 'blockbuster drug' could come from Singapore

Dr Tharmaratnam says there is a concentration of money and talent in Singapore. The probability that the Republic will have a billion-dollar biotechnology company in the next few years is “very high”.
PHOTO: Next 'blockbuster drug' could come from Singapore

Singapore has all the right ingredients to produce a blockbuster drug that would cement the Republic's status as a biopharmaceutical hub, said a leading global industry player.

As Dr Anand Tharmaratnam, senior vice-president and head of Asia-Pacific for pharmaceutical services giant Quintiles, put it: "There's a concentration of money and talent in Singapore."

He added: "The probability that Singapore will have a billion-dollar biotechnology company in the next few years is very high.

"You've got brains, foreign investment coming in, local government focus in making it happen, excellent regulatory framework and financial governance and intellectual property protection."

He was speaking at an interview last week as Quintiles announced upcoming developments from the firm such as a registry for Type 2 diabetes, and the Asian Sudden Cardiac Death in Heart Failure registry.

United States-headquartered Quintiles provides biopharmaceutical development and commercial outsourcing services, and has helped to develop or commercialise all of the top 50 best-selling drugs on the market. It employs 29,000 people worldwide.

Dr Tharmaratnam said that more partnerships and support can help Singapore firms develop the next blockbuster drug - usually a branded prescription medicine that generates annual sales of US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) or more for the company that created it.

"The drug may not have come from a laboratory in Singapore, but it may be that we encourage collaboration and joint ventures with companies that already have assets, who want to use Singapore as a hub to get those assets to market," he said.

Perhaps the Singapore Exchange (SGX) could also make it easier for home-grown biotechnology companies to list and raise funds, he suggested.

"The rules of the SGX prevent the listing of some of these small and medium-sized enterprises because they are not profit-making."

While biotechnology firms are usually not profitable in their first few years, they have great asset value, explained Dr Tharmaratnam.

Some of these firms are going to other markets, such as Taiwan or the United States, to be listed owing to such restrictions, he said.

Quintiles, which has its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore, is also working with regional and local firms such as Aslan Pharmaceuticals, as well as multinational companies looking to establish or expand operations here.

Quintiles and Aslan formed a partnership in 2010, where Quintiles provides development support for Aslan's portfolio of innovative drugs in Asia.

New work that Quintiles is involved in includes discussions to develop what will be known as an Asian Diabetes Outcomes Consortium, and a related Type 2 diabetes registry with data from thousands of diabetes patients from several Asian countries.

The consortium's members will use the registry data to improve diabetes treatment. Quintiles hopes the consortium will be operational late this year and said the project cost will be S$1 million to S$2 million.

Nothing has been finalised, said Dr Tharmaratnam, but countries targeted include Singapore, China and India.

"Diabetes is a big issue in South-east Asia. For genetic and lifestyle reasons, the incidence is high, in particular in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia," said Dr Tharmaratnam, a medical doctor.

"I think the registry will help us provide insight into diabetes in the region, and help the probability of success of our customers, the people who are providing health care in the region... We see ourselves as a key stakeholder in bringing all that together."

A unit of Quintiles is also providing data management and overall study management for the Asian Sudden Cardiac Death in Heart Failure registry, sponsored by the National University Health System.

Dr Tharmaratnam believes the industry here will continue to grow. "Singapore is at the forefront of good, quality clinical research and people need to be aware of that."

This article was published on May 14 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.