Singapore nets US cancer experts in biomedics drive
By Sara Webb and Mia Shanley
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – When top U.S. scientists Neal
Copeland and Nancy Jenkins arrive in Singapore to set up a new
cancer research project, they will bring some extraordinary
luggage: thousands and thousands of mice.
The husband-and-wife team will bring 50 to 100 different
strains of mice for their research into the most common types
of human cancer when they move to the city-state in coming
weeks. Their decision to relocate to Singapore — which they
chose over leading U.S. cancer research centers at New York’s
Memorial Sloan-Kettering and California’s Stanford University
– is a coup for Singapore, where the government is spending
billions of dollars to develop its biomedical industry.
“They are a big catch. They are prominent researchers, very
successful in the U.S.,” said Alan Colman, the British
scientist whose team cloned Dolly, the world’s most famous
Colman himself is one of a cluster of star scientists that
Singapore has lured in a bid to put the city-state of 4.4
million people on the map for biomedical research and drugs
Scientists in the United States now face restrictions on
government funding for stem cell research, shriveling grants,
and curbs on commercial spin-offs from their work such as
consulting and other fees, Copeland and Jenkins told Reuters in
a telephone interview ahead of their departure for Singapore.
“The amount of money going toward research is going down.
It doesn’t have a high priority (in the United States). In
Singapore it does,” said Copeland, adding that they would like
to exploit some of their Singapore-funded research
Copeland and Jenkins said they had been won over by
Singapore’s scientific freedom, deep pockets and interest in
commercial applications, at a time when the U.S. government’s
National Cancer Institute in Maryland — where they worked for
20 years — began a clamp down on consulting work by its
“This is a chance to explore new areas,” said Jenkins.
OF MICE AND MEN
Copeland, 58, and Jenkins, 55, use the mouse genome to
study which genes trigger cancers in humans.
“We use mouse genetics as a tool for human diseases,”
Copeland said, adding that their research tries to identify the
genes and develop the drugs to fight the most common cancers.
Copeland and Jenkins met 25 years ago as researchers at
Harvard Medical School, and have worked together for more than
20 years, co-authoring over 700 research papers.
Their most recent work employs a technique known as
“sleeping beauty” because of the way that it uses inactive
genetic material to activate or awaken cancer genes.
That work could lead to a better understanding of the
series of steps that take place when a person develops cancer,
said David Lane, who heads the Institute of Molecular and Cell
Biology in Singapore where Copeland and Jenkins will work.
Lane, who discovered the important “p53″ cancer gene which
suppresses tumors and whose work in Singapore focuses on zebra
fish, said that with the arrival of Copeland and Jenkins,
Singapore is starting to attract more interest in the
scientific community as it has built up a critical mass of
“People will go to where the big names are,” Lane said.
“The challenge is to create a place where people want to come.”
Philip Yeo, head of Singapore’s Economic Development Board,
makes no secret of the fact he wants to attract “whales” — or
scientists with an international reputation.
In addition to Colman, Singapore has attracted Sydney
Brenner, co-winner of the 2002 Nobel prize in Physiology or
Medicine for work on the genetic regulation of organ
Others include breast cancer researcher Edison Liu, who was
born in Hong Kong and emigrated to the United States, and
Japan’s Yoshiaki Ito. Both had worked at the National Cancer
Institute, and Ito was instrumental in enticing Copeland and
Jenkins to Singapore.
MONEY AND ETHICS
In an era where funding is critical — even a microscope
can cost half a million dollars — wealthy Singapore has the
That, say scientists, has been Singapore’s attraction,
along with speedy grant approvals and lack of burdensome
“We don’t want to spend the rest of our lives writing
grants,” said Copeland, adding that Singapore’s quick access to
funding was key. The couple’s colony of 20,000 mice costs some
$1 million a year to maintain.
Scientific research today is increasingly about access to
grants and rewards such as fame, prizes and commercial
spin-offs — incentives which can sometimes lead to unethical
practices, as South Korea’s stem cell research scandal has
But Copeland and Jenkins, who hope to be based in Singapore
for the long run, say the fall-out will have no impact on
Singapore’s ambitions to become Asia’s leading biomedical
Lane says Singapore already has a pile of applicants.
“You suddenly cross some threshold, where instead of
scouring the world trying to get people to come here, you are
suddenly in a position” to pick and choose, Lane said.