Monday, March 28, 2011

Public Wealth = Public Health

Cecilia Arradaza, Communications Director, FasterCures

About a month ago, personal travel brought me to Southeast Asia and I took the opportunity to see first-hand what many of us in the U.S. medical research community hear about as synonymous with innovation and transformation: Singapore’s Biopolis. Did it live up to the hype? Yes, at least at face value. Some observations:

  • It’s about public wealth. The two government agencies driving the biomedical science enterprise – Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the Economic Development Board – are part of the Ministry of Trade and Industry and not the Ministry of Health. This focuses its pursuit of biomedical sciences as drivers for economic growth. Science and innovation are a national priority, with commitment and support from the highest levels. The R&D infrastructure is regarded as a strategic industry that drives the country’s prosperity. And, its purported output is improved public health.

  • Collaboration is the standard. Biopolis is an integrated biomedical science R&D complex of nine buildings. It’s a short walk away from its twin hub, Fusionopolis, which features physicial sciences and engineering research. It’s a campus like many others – akin to that of the NIH campus in Bethesda, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, or other R&D campuses elsewhere. It features gleaming glass towers, world-class facilities, and a calendar packed with fascinating lectures. But where Singapore’s Biopolis and Fusionopolis set itself apart are how they are physically and functionally connected. Skybridges and tunnels connect activities. Shared infrastructure such as core scientific and research services and animal facilities connect priorities and strategies. And, it’s home to both public and private sector research. They believe putting companies right next to publicly-funded basic research labs facilitates the commercialization of research outputs. In fact, the building that houses the Health Sciences Authority (Singapore’s FDA), also houses pharmaceutical companies. Multi-sector collaboration and the convergence of disciplines distinguish this effort.

  • Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes. I visited with Ed Liu who leads the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and I was struck by how he seamlessly connected the most basic biological and physical scientific concepts with disease outcomes and in the same breath connected such outcomes with public prosperity. He articulated GIS’ goal to realize “precision medicine with predictive capacity.” And how these personalized medicine approaches can only be revolutionary if the appropriate financing model is in place to make it accessible. He believes these concepts, tools, and processes can be taken into the clinic – and the GIS is investing its time and talent to do just that.

Biopolis was built 10 years ago when Singapore focused its attention on building the “knowledge and innovation” industry. Singapore’s “lack of legacy,” as Liu pointed out, has allowed it to build a system from the ground up. So, what can the U.S. medical research system, a more mature, and complex enterprise that is constantly evolving to meet the demands of our time, take from all this? Can dinosaurs learn something from a bird just learning to flap its wings?

A 2009 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, "The Atlantic Century," found that the United States has made the least progress of the 40 nations/regions (with a global competitiveness score of 63.9 that’s 15 percent below the leader Singapore’s score of 73.4). We can watch Biopolis and Fusionopolis grow and prosper, from a distance, and wrap it up neatly with a case study bow. Or, better yet, we can and should get to know this model better and see what we must take away from it - embrace the transformation that’s underway and innovate from the outside in. We can identify approaches that we could potentially scale and replicate. We can infuse our paradigm with the culture of collaboration that they’ve demonstrated could work.

The U.S. has much to offer. Among the many sage lessons we can impart to our global counterparts for example, is focusing on, leveraging, and optimizing the power of the patient. Smart, strategic patient advocacy and engagement has paved the way for transformative advances in medical research. Just turn to how venture philanthropic organizations have catalyzed innovative approaches.

Disease knows no boundaries. And neither should the search for cures at the most lofty level or even at the most basic systems enhancement step. When nations compete to innovate in biomedical sciences – whether it’s to improve public health or increase public wealth – patients benefit. As FasterCures Chairman Mike Milken wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “America's economy used to be the sun – the gravitational center – in the "solar system" of leading nations. In the future, we'll no longer be the sun. But by investing in our own health, we can help solidify our position as Jupiter, the largest planet.”

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