A*STAR's BMRC and SIgN award grants for twelve research projects on infectious diseases and immunology

Twelve research projects on infectious diseases and immunology have been awarded grants by A*STAR's Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) this year. Helmed by researchers from local universities, research institutes and hospitals, these projects account for over one-third of the $23 million in grants from BMRC's 8th General Grant Call and SIgN's 4th Grant Call aimed at supporting the translation of lab discoveries to potential clinical therapies for diseases prevalent in Singapore and the region.

Of viral infections and the human immune response

Eight projects will examine viral infections and the human immune response. The results of which will potentially lead to better vaccines and improved clinical care for patients. One of the projects is led by Assistant Prof Toh Chee Seng of the National University of Singapore (NUS), who, in close collaboration with dengue and antibody research experts from A*STAR's SIgN, is developing an ultra-sensitive, low cost biosensor probe system for fast detection of the dengue virus. The system comprises a channel of nanometre-scale attached with antibodies that can bind and distinguish between the four serotypes of the dengue virus, as well as a detector.

"With this system, we will be able to sense low amounts of the dengue virus in patients' blood samples, and thus reduce the time needed for analysis from the current six hours to less than one hour. If successful, this system may also be further applied to rapid detection of multiple diseases at clinics, schools and offices during large-scale outbreaks of infectious diseases," said Assistant Prof Toh.

Another project led by Dr Justin Chu from NUS is seeking to answer important questions on the pathogenesis of the chikungunya virus, particularly about how its receptors function and how it enters cells. "This mosquito-borne virus was responsible for a local outbreak in 2008 and is fast becoming a global threat," said Dr Chu. "It is therefore critical for scientists to develop a good understanding of the complex virus-host interactions, so as to provide the basis for the development of possible therapeutics or vaccines against related viral infections. We hope that our research will ultimately contribute towards better diagnosis and treatment for patients," he added.

The research project on anterior uveitis, a specific form of inflammation of the eye for which the cause remains unknown, is led by Associate Prof Chee Soon Phaik from the Singapore National Eye Centre, in collaboration with Dr Subhra Biswas from SIgN. The team will study the role of the cytomegalovirus (CMV) in anterior uveitis and other eye diseases. CMV, which can infect people of all ages, sexes and ethnic backgrounds, can remain in the body after infection and be reactivated upon subsequent stress to the immune system. It can also be transmitted from mother to baby. Said Assoc Prof Chee, "We have made some early breakthroughs in research on CMV-associated uveitis. Building upon these earlier findings, we aim to use the current research to contribute to improved diagnosis and better management of the disease."

Prof Sir George Radda, Chairman of BMRC, said, "BMRC's General Grant Call provides funding to the most promising of grant applications, which aim to unveil new knowledge, create breakthroughs in biomedical science, and advance translational and clinical research. Funding such research is core to A*STAR's mission and purpose to create industrial advances, economic benefits and better health for all. We are pleased with the quality of the 2009 applications and hope that the scientific community in Singapore will continue to work together to pursue high-impact and meaningful outcomes for society."

Said Prof Paola Castagnoli, Scientific Director of SIgN, "The 2009 SIgN grants were awarded to deserving clinical researchers who, in addition to having original ideas for addressing fundamental clinical problems, demonstrate strong partnerships with scientists who could share relevant skills and knowledge to fulfill common research goals. As Singapore ramps up its efforts in bench-to-bedside translational research, SIgN will continue to contribute to the vibrant research environment here by encouraging the exchange of ideas and expertise between academic, industrial and clinical partners."

Minding heart and mental health

In addition to the research projects on infectious diseases and immunology, grants were also awarded by BMRC to novel research in neuroscience and cardiovascular disease, which could be applied to address pressing health issues in Singapore such as heart disease and depression . A total of 30 projects (a list of the projects is provided in the Annex A) were awarded grants under BMRC's 8th General Grant Call and SIgN's 2009 Collaborative Grant Call.

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