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Mon, June 7, 2010
The Straits Times

Staying ahead of the competition through R&D

By Francis Chan, Marissa Lee

The local health-care sector generated $4.1 billion in value-add in 2008, and output from biomedical firms quadrupled from $6.3billion 10 years ago to $24.4 billion in 2007. Such firms are key to Singapore's continuing growth as Asia's biomedical hub.

In the fourth of a six-part, fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Francis Chan and Marissa Lee look at how product and service innovations have helped two firms become leading players in the fast-growing health-care and biomedical sector.

WHEN cell therapy was still science fiction rather than fact, Mr Steven Fang was already drafting plans to cash in on what he saw as the future of medicine.

The 44-year-old, who at the time already had more than 20 years of biotechnology experience under his belt, quickly pooled $900,000 from his life savings, friends, family and the sale of his house.

He used the money as seed capital to set up Singapore's first cord blood bank, CordLife, in May 2001.

With a staff strength of just one and a half - the "half" being a medical doctor and friend of Mr Fang's willing to work part-time - the firm opened its doors to business from a small laboratory cum office at Camden Medical Centre in Orchard Boulevard.

Today, CordLife is one of Asia's leading cord blood banks with a workforce of 200 and a client base of 26,000 - excluding associate companies - in six markets, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, India and the Philippines.

In September last year, CordLife was involved in a pioneering procedure here, in which a baby was treated for cerebral palsy with stem cells from her own cord blood.

The firm turned in A$4.2 million (S$4.9 million) in net profit for the year ended June 2009 - its first profitable year since its listing on the Australia Stock Exchange in 2004. Total sales of A$23.7 million were up 60 per cent from sales a year ago.

The firm processes and stores stem cells from umbilical cord blood collected at a baby's birth. Umbilical cord blood is a rich source of stem cells, and stem cell transplants can treat a range of hereditary diseases.

CordLife differentiates itself from the large number of competitors that have sprung up over the past nine years, by investing heavily in the best technology for multiplying the stem cells and keeping them in their "naive" form - the form in which they are most useful for regenerative medicine.

The firm puts a lot of effort into controlling the cells' environment through the use of chemical and electrical signals.

Research and development are what differentiate the winners from the losers in this new area of medical science, and CordLife is involved in a range of cutting-edge collaborations with hospitals and research institutes.

Over the past few years, for example, CordLife has been involved in trials with PharmaCell in the Netherlands to use stem cells to cure heart disease.

Though far advanced from where it was in 2001, the industry is still relatively new and has a long way to go before it reaches maturity.

At a basic level, Mr Fang said one of the key factors currently preventing cell therapy from developing faster is the lack of availability of stem cells.

"Right now, transplanting physicians are hampered by a lack of stem cells as well as by a lack of understanding as to how to use these stem cells."

Part of the reason for this supply shortage is that the production process is very tricky and far from predictable.

"For some reasons that we are just beginning to understand, stem cells do not multiply well," said Mr Fang. "When you try and coax them to change, it is in their programming to become something far less useful to us, rather than stay in their naive form."

So it is not surprising to discover that the diseases that can be treated with stem cells are fairly limited - numbering about 80 conditions and in the area of life-threatening chronic diseases.

But this is set to change, according to Mr Fang, who hopes cell therapy will soon become more mainstream and be accepted by physicians for use on a regular basis.

"The trend is moving towards lifestyle diseases like diabetes," he said. "Heart conditions, things that have a high incident rate."

CordLife is keen to position itself for such changes and has entered into joint ventures to explore new therapeutic areas, such as treatments for diabetes Type 1 and childhood diabetes.

Looking to the future, CordLife's new cord-lining storage capability promises to be an exciting growth area for the company.

It will enable the firm to collect and isolate not only the stem cells from cord blood, but also stem cells in the umbilical cord itself.

"The cord itself has a lot of useful stem cells, mostly the mesenchymal stem cells that are different from blood stem cells and tend to be useful in rebuilding of skin and cartilage," said Mr Fang.

"There are many companies that claim to be able to isolate the cord and use the stem cells from there for treatment of skin conditions, skin ulcers and scarring. But this technology allows us to isolate not just one but three types of stem cells from there, which to my knowledge is the first in the world."

The cord-lining storage service is based on Singapore-based biotech company CellResearch Corporation's patented technology. CordLife will hold the exclusive licence for it in key countries in Asia.

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