The development of new medicines is a costly and time-consuming business. Each new drug needs, on average, 10 years of testing and US$2.6 billion (S$3.6 billion) of investment before it can be made available to patients.
In return, the benefits of new therapies can be enormous.
Five years ago, for example, the best available treatments for hepatitis C, a viral infection of the liver, were able to cure only about 40 per cent of patients. Some of those who failed to respond would need liver transplants, or developed life- threatening liver cancers.
The latest generation of medicines now offers cure rates of 90 per cent or more, making a substantial impact on the lives of individual patients, and representing significant cost savings to healthcare systems.
In addition to the medical benefit, pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) has an important impact on the broader economy. Battelle, a consultancy, estimates that for every $1 in direct output from the pharmaceutical industry, an extra $1.40 of value is generated in other sectors of the economy.
Nevertheless, the growing burden to society of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's means that researchers, governments and the industry are under ever greater pressure to find novel and more effective ways to advance medical research.
In this context, the concept of intellectual property has never been more important, but it has expanded in meaning, from a narrow question of how to patent novel inventions to a broad-ranging consideration of how best to drive global innovation in an efficient and timely way.
The Asian region has an important and growing role to play in this transformation because it is increasingly a major participant in global medical research.
Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals, places China second only to the United States in terms of academic publications, with Japan and South Korea sixth and 13th respectively (Singapore is 20th) on the global ranking.
The World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) calculates that China, Japan and SouthKorea, in aggregate, produce more patents annually than the US.
Asian universities and companies are also increasingly leading the way in new areas of medical technology. Korean companies such as Celltrion, for instance, are among the world's most sophisticated manufacturers of so-called biosimilar drugs - lower-cost versions of expensive biologic therapies, in illnesses such as cancer and immunological disease.
Because of Asia's growing capabilities for drug development, multinational companies are keen to engage actively with researchers and drug developers in this region.
Biogen, a US biotechnology company, recently announced an alliance with Samsung to develop biosimilar therapies.
AstraZeneca, a European pharmaceutical firm, has teamed up with Hutchison Medipharma, a Chinese biotechnology company, to develop a novel cancer drug.
And, in Sanofi, we have developed a new vaccine for dengue fever by collaborating closely with hospitals and government agencies across South-east Asia.
These cases illustrate a changing reality in the drug development process.
Whereas pharmaceutical companies previously undertook their research in complete isolation from academia and from other companies, guarding their research closely in private laboratories, the past 10 or 15 years have seen companies and universities moving towards "open innovation", a collaborative approach which recognises that no single party has all the elements necessary to create game-changing medicines for the modern age.
Rather, new therapies depend on a range of different participants - from academia, the public sector, industry and not-for-profit groups - coming together to solve healthcare problems in an integrated way.
For example, the Global Healthcare Innovative Technology (GHIT) fund is a public-private partnership in Japan, with investment from the Tokyo government, five Japanese pharmaceutical companies, the Gates Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme.
Tasked with developing therapies for diseases affecting the developing world, GHIT is one of the first organisations of its kind to involve the participation of a national government, private companies, the United Nations and a major philanthropic group.
Such a partnership would have been unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago.
This open-innovation business model is a very different way of working from the isolated approach of the past, and it requires a certain kind of environment in which to flourish.
First, open innovation requires access to a large, dynamic pool of world-class researchers.
Second, in order to link innovations from different disciplines, encompassing both academia and private entrepreneurship, a broad-based R&D ecosystem is needed, in which a network of information exchange and business co-operation is more valuable than any individual institution or company.
Third, because the development of new medicines is never the preserve of any one country in isolation, a public policy framework which encourages international collaboration is critical.
Finally, as drugs are developed increasingly by consortia and partnerships, a robust intellectual property framework is essential to ensure that the obligations and benefits of new discoveries can be appropriately allocated.
Singapore is well placed to take a leading role in the development of new medical advances for the 21st century.
At a public policy level, Singapore has done much to create an environment amenable to innovation-dependent industries.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think-tank, ranks countries in its Global Innovation Policy Index, and considers the Republic to be the only Asian country in the top tier across all seven domains that it evaluates.
Singapore's small geographic size, coupled with its diverse, highly globalised business and academic communities, allows for a level of integration and co-operation that would be challenging in larger territories, and which is well suited to high-technology industries such as the life sciences.
And so, as drug development evolves from a fragmented, predominantly private-sector enterprise to a global knowledge-based collaboration involving many different kinds of participants, we can anticipate a significant role for Singapore in helping to drive forward the next generation of technological advances in medical research.
About the writer
Dr James Garner, 42, is Head, Unit Development Office for Asia Pacific at pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, where he focuses on external innovation within the Asian region.
He was a speaker at the Global Forum on Intellectual Property, as part of IP Week @ SG 2015, which took place this week.
Prior to joining Sanofi, Dr Garner was regional vice-president of research and development for Asia with pharmaceutical company Takeda.
He was also regional medical director at Quintiles, a biopharmaceutical development and commercial outsourcing services firm. He is a physician by training and holds a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Queensland, Australia.
This article was first published on Aug 28, 2015.
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