Research Center in Asia Sets Pace for New Cancer Cures

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A new research center in Singapore dedicated to accelerate the understanding how individual cells work and how it can help diagnose different types of diseases opened last April 11, 2013. The Single-Cell Omics Centre (SCOC) is keen to access integrated analytics for single-cell genomic applications. The research center will be an important resource for both academic and industry researchers in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region.

Single-Cell Genomics: what it can do to patients?

For the uninitiated, single-cell genomics is one of the emerging areas of study in life sciences research. It could help solve some of the most fundamental biological mysteries of our time. It could lead to new ways how to diagnose, treat and prevent diseases such as cancer, diabetes, memory loss, heart disease and more. For example, scientists now know that the loss of sight (macular degeneration), the biology of aging, and the spreading of infectious diseases all involve important single-cell phenomena that need to be studied.

Collaboration of top minds

The SCOC is a collaboration between the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), an institute under the umbrella of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and Fluidigm Corporation, a company that develops, manufactures and markets microfluidic systems for life science and agricultural biotechnology.

“The opening of the Single-Cell Omics Centre today is a perfect example of public-private partnership under an open innovation framework,” says Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman of A*STAR. “By encouraging multi-disciplinary collaborations, this center will further enhance Singapore’s R&D capabilities and scientific know-how. It may also lead to new, potentially life-saving applications in the biomedical sector.”

Location, location, location

The SCOC is a 25 square-meter laboratory in GIS facilities located in Biopolis, Singapore. It has advanced next generation genomic equipment and sequencing technologies, which includes the Fluidigm C1 Single-Cell Auto Prep System that automatically isolates individual cells from small tissue quantities or larger cell populations. The C1 system was one of the first in the world. The center also houses two Fluidigm BioMark HD Systems that perform single-cell gene expression analytics and validation. These instruments were manufactured at Fluidigm’s factory in Singapore.

According to Chu Swee Yeok, CEO and President of EDBI, a strategic investment company that is based in Singapore, Fluidigm is a leader when it comes to single cell genomics research. “We are proud to have played a critical role in supporting its growth as its first Asian investor,” says Chu. “The company established the biochip facility in Singapore in 2005 and with EDB’s and our continued support, undertook a full range of manufacturing and R&D activities, leveraging on Singapore’s strengths for its global and Asian needs.”

The SCOC, according to Chu, is an extension of Fluidigm’s growing activities in Singapore and more significantly, an initiative that will help strengthen its leadership in this important field.

Opportunities for Asian scientists

The SCOC expects to attract top researchers from Asia to conduct single-cell experimentation for foundational research. Scientists from various fields of biology can come together at the center to learn how stem cells might be re-programmed for therapeutic treatments in the future. They could also collaborate to discover how various diseases work so they can develop new drugs or treatments to cure the sickly, or even personalize medical care so it can meet the need of each patient.

Initially, the SCOC is focusing on single-cell analysis of cancer, looking at lung and colon cancers in solid and circulating tumor cell (CTC) forms. CTCs are cells that have shed from the tumor and are circulating in the bloodstream, seeding growth of additional tumors in other organs in the body.

Currently samples from solid tumors are studied in aggregate, grouping all the cells together in a mish-mashed genomic stew. The SCOC expects to develop a method where the cells of solid tumors can be easily converted into cells floating in a liquid solution.

Then the C1 Single-Cell Auto Prep System will be used to individually isolate and prepare each cell for complete study and sequencing. This will allow researchers to understand what is happening in each cancer cell and also be able to study a thousand different cells individually from a tumor.

The center will compare cells taken directly from the solid tumor and those circulating cells from the same tumor to analyze them for commonalities or differences. If it turns out that CTCs closely correlate with cells from the solid tumor, it could eliminate the need for surgery to get samples from the tumor and allow the disease to be monitored by capturing CTCs from blood – a liquid biopsy.

Promising work in the future

“Single-cell genomics provides researchers with an opportunity for extraordinary scientific discovery,” says Gajus Worthington, Fluidigm President and CEO. “Individual cells, even from the same tissue, do not function identically. These differences can be the key to crucial biological insights, including the diagnosis and treatment of critical diseases.”

Worthington expects the combination of rich application diversity, groundbreaking science and the endorsement from key opinion leaders throughout Asia to make the center one of the leaders of single-cell innovation in the world.

One of the SCOC’s anticipated follow-on projects will involve the development of methods to compare cells treated with a drug against cells that have not been exposed to the drug in order to measure how differently the cells react. These measurements can then be used to find more effective treatments of disease.

“Since the late 1830’s we have known the cell is the foundational unit of life but have been challenged to comprehensively study biology at this level,” says Dr. Paul Robson, GIS Principal Investigator. “The technology has now arrived to do this and the local research and medical communities are abuzz with the possibilities.”

“The Single-Cell Omics Centre aims to facilitate community access to these microfluidic technologies and thus enable unparalleled insight into underlying biological mechanisms operative in health and disease,” adds Worthington.

These projects require analysis of a large numbers of cells and the work of the SCOC is expected to enable researchers to process hundreds of cells per day in a cost-effective, efficient manner. These breakthroughs could speed up scientific discovery in biology around the globe.

Single-Cell Genomics: New Research Frontier

According to Ng Huck Hui, GIS Executive Director, GIS has identified Single-Cell Genomics as one of their new research frontiers. “We are set up to build a repertoire of new research capabilities for single-cell analyses,” says Ng. “Our initial collaboration with Fluidigm has borne fruit with the publication of a landmark paper by Dr. Paul Robson. This larger and very important collaboration will see an even greater synergy between the technologies from GIS and Fluidigm.”

Fluidigm develops, manufactures and markets microfluidic systems for growth markets in the life science and agricultural biotechnology, or Ag-Bio, industries. Fluidigm’s proprietary microfluidic systems consist of instruments and consumables, including integrated fluidic circuits (IFCs), assays and other reagents.

The Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) is an institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). It has a global vision that seeks to use genomic sciences to improve public health and public prosperity. Established in 2001 as a center for genomic discovery, the GIS pursue the integration of technology, genetics and biology towards the goal of individualized medicine.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore’s lead public sector agency that fosters world-class scientific research and talent to drive economic growth and transform Singapore into a vibrant knowledge-based and innovation driven economy.

EDBI is a strategic investment firm headquartered in Singapore, with a worldwide presence investing to drive growth opportunities within the knowledge and innovation-intensive sectors of Biomedical Sciences (through its subsidiary Bio*One Capital), Clean Technologies, Internet & Digital Media, as well as key industries in Singapore.