New book chronicles 50 years of clinical research in Singapore

Source: Copyright 2016 MediaCorp Press Ltd. Article first appeared in TODAY.

Republic’s journey to becoming world-class research hub captured in publication commissioned by SCRI

Associate Professor Teoh Yee Leong (left) and Professor Woo Keng Thye with copies of Saving Lives Through Clinical Research: A 50-Year Journey of Singapore’s Scientific Leadership, which was commissioned by the Singapore Clinical Research Institute.

SINGAPORE — In the past, clinical research was sometimes done on researchers’ personal time — and even on their own dime — because of a shortage of resources, and getting published in international journals was a challenge as locally done research was an unknown quantity. 

But, thanks to breakthroughs such as the discovery of a low-dose atropine eye drop to slow down myopic progression in children, and that the Hepatitis B vaccine is also effective at half the dosage, Singapore has made a name for itself in the world of clinical research, attracting international firms to conduct research here. 

This journey to becoming a world-class research hub has been captured in a new book commissioned by the Singapore Clinical Research Institute (SCRI), which was launched today (Sept 28). 

The book, titled Saving Lives Through Clinical Research: A 50-Year Journey of Singapore’s Scientific Leadership, comprises first-hand accounts from 11 contributors who share little-known facts about the beginnings of Singapore’s research history. 

Among them is Professor Woo Keng Thye, 70, emeritus consultant in the Department of Renal Medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and clinical professor in medicine at National University of Singapore. Having devoted more than 30 years to nephrology — the study of kidney functions and problems — Prof Woo recalled how conducting original research in the past was the biggest hurdle to conducting clinical trials. 

“In those days, we didn’t have much in terms of research,” said Prof Woo in an interview at the book launch today. The laboratories here were not recognised and the researchers’ work had not been published before in international journals, he said. 

With local expertise lacking, Prof Woo went overseas to study research techniques before returning to eventually set up four to five laboratories at SGH.

After conducting the research, it was also a challenge to get it published in international journals. While Singapore research is now considered “world-class”, it was not easy to achieve recognition 40 to 50 years ago, said Prof Woo. 

Among Prof Woo’s research interests is IgA Nephritis, the most common form of kidney disease. Even now, its cause remains unknown. “It is very elusive, you see — we know what causes the kidney to fail, we know what causes damage to the kidney, but what initiates the disease is still unknown today, and that’s why after 50 years, people are still working on it.”

Some of his contributions to this area of study include his clinical trials and recommendations, which have been adopted as treatment guidelines by many countries. The Oxford classification of IgA Nephritis has also been modified with Prof Woo’s published research paper. 

Dr Charles Toh, founding chairman of the National Medical Research Council and another contributor to the book, recalled how clinical research in the 1960s to 1980s were conducted at a personal level by passionate clinicians because of a shortage of funding, laboratories and research scientists. 

“However, this all changed when the Singapore Government started to fund medical research at an unprecedented level after seeing the life-saving benefits and importance of clinical trials,” he said. 

In a speech at the launch, Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min said: “Today, we are the beneficiaries of the pioneering efforts of many Singapore medical researchers whose painstaking efforts and dogged research have transformed once life-threatening diseases into treatable conditions. As a result, this has helped improve the quality of life of Singaporeans and extended the survival of our patients.”

Over the past 15 years, the number of clinical trials conducted here has been rising — last year, 280 CTCs were issued by the Health Sciences Authority, nearly double the 157 issued in 2000. “MOH will continue to invest in and develop clinical research to help us ensure that our people continue to receive the best healthcare,” said Dr Lam. 

The book is available in digital format and can be downloaded for free at SCRI’s website (

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