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Liberal laws ‘a boon for biomed sector’

  Tuesday, 03 l 08 l 2010 Source:  The Straits Times   
By: Amresh Gunasingham

US expert: S’pore still draws the best talent as it’s easier to work with embryonic stem cells here 

SINGAPORE continues to attract the best minds in biomedical research because of its comparatively liberal laws governing the use of human embryonic stem cells, a leading American scientist said here yesterday.

His comments came more than a year after United States President Barack Obama announced an easing of federal restrictions on funding stem cell work. Previous administrations had blocked such a move for years.

At the time, Mr Obama’s move was hailed as a boon for scientists in terms of reducing red tape and allowing access to restricted areas in the field.

However, it also stoked fears of a possible exodus of talent from the biomedical sector in Singapore, which has been expanding rapidly in the past decade.

But Professor Shu Chien, a famed biological scientist from the University of California (San Diego), said many US states, with the exception of some such as California, continue to impose strict restrictions on conducting research with human embryonic stem cells.

“Singapore’s laws are much more liberal in the sense that it is easier to work with embryonic stem cells,” he said.
Prof Shu was speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of the three-day International Conference On Cellular And Biomolecular Engineering at Nanyang Technological University yesterday.

The key to stem cell research is understanding master cells, which are taken from embryos, and can grow into any cell in the body.

Such cells could potentially hold a cure for ailments such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

But the work is controversial as the cells originate from days-old embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

Despite these restrictions, the US is still regarded as the world leader in stem cell research. At present, researchers there can seek to raise private-sector funding to conduct their work without restrictions, but Prof Shu said yesterday this often pales in comparison to the resources that could be tapped with government-aided funding.

Singapore, in contrast, has tackled the issue by embracing the research with full government support and strict laws to prevent abuse of the technology.

Speaking at the opening ceremony yesterday, Minister of State (Trade And Industry and Manpower) Lee Yi Shyan noted that a decade-long focus on investing in infrastructure, intellectual and human capital has positioned Singapore as a leading international bio-cluster in Asia.

As a result, more than 4,300 researchers now carry out biomedical research in both the private and public sectors in Singapore, he said.

The sector has been enjoying a boom of sorts recently.

Last year, the sector’s manufacturing output rose 2.5 per cent year-on-year to $20 billion. Singapore aims for the sector to hit a manufacturing output of $25 billion by 2015.

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