A Global Fight Against Bugs

For bio-sciences entrepreneur Rosemary Tan, treading an unchartered path to fight viral epidemics was driven by knowledge and commitment, but also an open-mindedness to collaborate with brilliant minds from around the world.

BY Rosemary Tan
PHOTOS (main) The Business Times/SPH Library

Valuable lessons learnt from the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks in the past inspired Rosemary Tan to bring molecular diagnostics from labs to public places.

I

t’s no secret that I have always been an avid fan of the sciences. What many people don’t know is that I had always aspired to be a flight attendant as a child. That ambition was fuelled by a curiosity to see what the world was like. Moreover, air travel in those days was a luxury that not many could afford. The prospect of being able to enjoy something not available to others was particularly appealing.

Much has changed since then. Airlines today have more extensive flight networks, and air tickets are more affordable than ever. And while I did not become a flight attendant, the evolution of air travel has impacted my work, both as a bio-scientist and as the founder of Veredus Laboratories, a bio-technology company that creates solutions to detect pathogens.

Because of the greater connectivity that air travel has afforded, it is not just people who are able to move around more freely. Infectious diseases, too, have been able to proliferate more swiftly than ever. The SARS and H1N1 outbreaks in 2003 and 2009 respectively have shown us how quickly diseases can spread in modern times. It is imperative that we have the necessary protocols and equipment to tackle these threats promptly. The 2003 SARS epidemic in Singapore made me see the gap between untapped technologies in research labs and the commercial world that, in turn, determined how efficiently such threats could be dealt with. During that outbreak, the use of modern molecular diagnostics – that is, techniques used to analyse biological markers and detect genetic material or proteins that are linked with diseases – was not readily available. This led to a catastrophic turn of events.

“ GIVEN THAT INFECTIONS IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE WORLD COULD BE GENETICALLY DIFFERENT, WITH MUTATIONS OCCURRING ONLY IN CERTAIN PLACES AT TIMES, CROSSBORDER COLLABORATION IS CRITICAL. ”

I knew that there had to be a more efficient way of doing things. As a Star Trek fan, I adopted the show’s mantra “to boldly go where no one has gone before” and sought to bring molecular diagnostics from the lab to public places such as transportation hubs.

In 2008, Veredus launched VereFlu, the world’s first Lab-on-Chip detection kit that can identify more than 10 influenza subtypes. A small sample is extracted from a carrier, placed in a chip and put into a device where biological and chemical reactions occur. Results are then obtained from a reader within two hours.

This innovation has since enabled health authorities around the world to prevent potential flu pandemics through the early identification of severe flu strains. As with all diseases, early detection gives time for prompt action and treatment, such as isolating patients with highly contagious diseases and prevent its further spreading.

I must add that the development of this innovation, as well as our other Lab-on-Chip detection kits, would not have been possible without the help of the World Health Organization and the brilliant scientists from countries including Australia, Africa, Brazil, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Because pathogens are constantly evolving even as scientists work tirelessly to combat infectious diseases, we must always be two steps ahead to prevent pandemics. We need an extensive network of scientists to facilitate sharing the genetic information of pathogens. Given that infections in different parts of the world could be genetically different, with mutations occurring only in certain places at times, cross-border collaboration is critical.

Over the years, I have worked with numerous overseas companies to develop Veredus’ products. These collaborations have given me valuable cultural insights. One of our foreign partners and eventual shareholder for the VereFlu project was STMicroelectronics, a French-Italian semiconductor giant. This partnership was necessary because, in the beginning, our core competency was in biology, and we lacked the engineering expertise to turn our research into products.

“ One of the first impressions I had about the Japanese is that they tend to be very serious and quiet. But after spending some time with them, I soon learnt that they can, in fact, be very approachable and friendly. ”

Initially, I was afraid that my company would be too small and inexperienced to work with this industry giant. However, our Italian partners were a delight to work with: open-minded, highly driven and taking great pride in their work. And while they might appear to be a close-knit group of people who keep to themselves, the Italians actually enjoy experiencing different cultures. While in Singapore, they were eager to try our local food and learn more about our way of life. Thanks to these traits, our 10-yearlong professional connection has now turned into a lifelong friendship.

The Japanese are another community that I have worked closely with. I have always been familiar with this culture, having studied the Japanese language from secondary school to junior college, not to mention doing my postgraduate studies at Osaka University and the University of Tokyo. One of the first impressions I had about the Japanese is that they tend to be serious and quiet. But after spending some time with them, I soon learnt that they can, in fact, be very approachable and friendly. My Japanese associates have even remarked that Singaporeans have a perfectionist streak, and don’t give up until they have found the best solution to any challenge at hand.

Since the acquisition of Veredus by SEKISUI Chemical, a Tokyo-based diagnostics giant, I have interacted frequently with Japanese scientists and business professionals. Besides possessing an exceptional ability to focus on any given task, they are also respectful and understanding.

Through my interaction with our Japanese and Italian counterparts, I have concluded that an open attitude towards foreign cultures can vastly improve global cooperation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rosemary Tan is the founder and CEO of Veredus Laboratories. Her first business venture was Genecet Biotechnologies, a life sciences education facility for children, which was established in 2001. A recipient of the Outstanding Science Alumni Award from the National University of Singapore and the Naito Science Award from Japan, Tan is presently a member of the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council; the Committee on the Future Economy; and the Biotechnology Advisory Committee for the School of Life Sciences & Chemical Technology, Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

 




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