Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Singapore sweetening the pill for researchers

The country is luring scientists by offering them a place to work with no animal rights protests, minimal red tape and ample cash incentives

By Heather Tomlinson  /  THE GUARDIAN

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Many countries, including the UK, aspire to attract pharmaceutical companies to carry out research on their home turf. Western governments are keen to create a highly skilled workforce as a competitive edge against cheaper labor in the far east.

Now Singapore is making inroads into this sector. Its weapon is S$3 billion (US$583 million) of government cash, which is being used to make the country biotech-friendly in the five years ending next year. The country is close to signing a deal with UK drugs group GlaxoSmithKline to set up a research house that will investigate drugs for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The number of scientists Glaxo is hiring is small relative to its British operations: about 30, compared with its estimated 6,000 in the UK. But the area of research is highly skilled and just the sort of investment Britain cannot afford to lose if it is to keep its global second-place position in biomedical research and pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceutical firms have been manufacturing drugs in Singapore since the early 1970s, when Beecham set up a factory to make antibiotics, primarily for the Japanese market. Others soon followed, attracted by the 0 percent corporation tax that manufacturers are offered as well as the fact that English is the first language.

Growth in medical manufacturing output grew 16 percent last year to S$11 billion, and the country plans to get this up to S$20 billion by the decade's end.

Now it wants to attract the highly skilled research that the UK and US excel at, and has succeeded in luring Glaxo and Swiss-owned Novartis as well as small British and American biotechnology companies. Top scientists such as Alan Colman, who led the team that brought us Dolly the cloned sheep, and Martin Hibberd at Imperial College London are relocating there. The country is trying to create a new force in international biomedical research.

"It is an effort by Singapore to add new a growth area to the economy and complement manufacturing," said Beh Swan Gin, director of biomedical sciences for the economic development board. "Biotechnology represents the knowledge-based economy. The initiative is fundamentally about diversifying [the country's] portfolio."

So far, it has persuaded a dozen or so biomedical sciences firms to set up research operations there, including Paradigm Therapeutics from the UK and US firms Isis Pharmaceutical and Vanda Pharmaceuticals.

"Singapore is increasingly becoming a country of excellence in biomedical research; it makes sense do research out there," said a Glaxo spokesperson. "We want to be part of what is happening in Singapore in terms of bioscience."

According to the Singapore government, Glaxo intends to double its laboratory space for early stage drug development.

To drug research firms, a significant attraction of Singapore when compared to the UK is its strict law and ruthless policing. The pharmaceutical industry in Britain is under threat from animal rights activists and a "tendency to blow up scientists," according to Paul Herrling, the chairman of Novartis's new research unit in Singapore that will look at new treatments for dengue fever and tuberculosis.

Glaxo says that animal rights extremism is not a factor in its decision to go to Singapore, and that it is not shipping out the experiments carried out on monkeys and apes that attract the most outrage from anti-vivisection groups.

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