Professor Joseph Sung, Dean of Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKC Medicine)
Professor Lim Kah Leong, Vice Dean for Research, LKC Medicine
Dr Serene Ng, Chief Operating Officer, LKC Medicine
Professor Laurent Rénia, LKC Medicine Biosafety Level -3 (BSL-3) Facility Operator
1. It is a pleasure to be with you today for the opening of the LKC Medicine Biosafety Level-3 (BSL-3) Facility at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Experimental Medicine Building.
Infectious Diseases Research at NTU
2. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the academic community stepped up to support our national efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers and clinician scientists in all our universities, research centres and medical schools collaborated to prioritise research towards a better understanding of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus and COVID-19 infection, and that included its mode of transmission and how it causes disease, on diagnostics to better detect COVID-19 infection, therapeutics to reduce the likelihood of getting severe infections in at risk individuals as well as vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants. They conducted laboratory-based research and clinical trials. They also formed Key Opinion Leader networks in the area of infectious diseases to further prioritise and pivot research towards COVID-19.
3. NTU was one of the first universities in the world to develop and register a breath-based COVID-19 test that was trialed and tested on hundreds of staff working at Changi Airport during the Rostered Routine Testing phase of our operations. The prototype non-invasive medical device was developed by Associate Professor Ling Xing Yi and her team. It detects the distinctive profile of the volatile organic compounds in the breath of COVID-infected individuals through a sensor chip and allows results to be available in minutes. While areas for improvement were revealed during validation studies, such novel technologies are promising. They are future diagnostic tools that can challenge our approach to testing.
4. Also noteworthy is the successful development of primary lung organoids derived from healthy individuals and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by a team led by Associate Professor Sanjay Haresh Chotirmall. The organoids could replicate the physiological lung microenvironment, providing researchers with a novel human model system to study host-pathogen interactions of emerging infectious diseases. Particularly, the organoid models were used to study SARS-CoV-2 and the findings provided important insights into the pathogenesis of this virus.
Importance of BSL-3 facility to NTU
5. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Without laboratories, men of science are soldiers without arms”. I am heartened to note the successful construction and certification of the new NTU LKC Medicine BSL-3 facility. NTU researchers now have greater access to a dedicated facility, with its specialised engineering set-up and infrastructure, that allows them to safely expand their research into infectious diseases and in particular, focusing on pathogens which may be easily spread through the airborne transmission mode, and which may be of higher virulence. This includes infections like melioidosis, tuberculosis, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and COVID-19.
6. Apart from the BSL-3 infrastructure, it is also essential for NTU LKC Medicine to have a comprehensive and effective biorisk management system in place. This includes having competent users and researchers, who adopt the Code of Conduct for responsible research, adhere to good biosafety and biosecurity standards and practices.
7. Professor Laurent Rénia, an expert in infectious disease and immunology, has been appointed by NTU LKC Medicine to oversee the management of the new BSL-3 facility, with support from the NTU LKC Medicine BSL-3 Biosafety Committee which comprises domain experts in various subject matters, including microbiology, genetics, ethics for both human and animal studies. I trust that Professor Rénia, the Biosafety Committee, the BSL-3 facility management teams, users and researchers will work together to ensure the safe and secure operations of the facility and to comply with all the relevant regulatory requirements.
Supporting National Research Efforts for Epidemic Preparedness and Response
8. High containment BSL-3 facilities and their associated trained manpower are an integral part of the public health response to emerging infectious disease prevention, control, and management. As the Chairperson of the Steering Committee for our national Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness And REsponse (PREPARE), I am pleased to note that NTU LKC Medicine BSL-3 facility joins the strong network of BSL-3 facilities in Singapore that will work closely with PREPARE, to respond quickly to future infectious disease outbreaks.
9. This cooperative network established by PREPARE aims to harmonise work activities and protocols, run collaborative projects to test-run the system, to identify constraints, and anticipate bottlenecks amongst the various facilities. At the first PREPARE BSL-3 workshop in July this year, the facilities jointly identified a list of actionable issues to work on together. For instance, the sharing of the laboratories’ respective annual shutdown dates for certification allows the group to coordinate and ensure that there will be sufficient BSL-3 capacity nationally for epidemic research throughout the year.
10. In particular, the NTU LKC Medicine BSL-3 facility will participate in the PREPARE’s research efforts on emerging novel pathogens, which include investigating disease transmissibility, examining the impact of the disease on the immune systems, to identify potential vaccine candidates and therapeutics targets, as well as developing and assessing new diagnostic tests and kits.
11. Peacetime networks and collaborations between clinicians and researchers are especially important in infectious diseases research, as they would enable faster collaboration and response in times of crisis. Looking further afield, I also hope that the School will leverage on this infrastructure to build connections and collaborations with other local and international clinical and research institutions. These collaborations would not only provide Singapore access to a bigger knowledge pool, but also provide opportunities for Singapore to contribute our findings to inform others’ research, thereby raising the value of our own findings.
12. Lastly, I would like to congratulate NTU on the opening of the LKC Medicine BSL-3 facility. I look forward to NTU’s valuable contributions in the area of infectious diseases research and the enhancement of Singapore’s pandemic preparedness and response resilience, in a safe and secure manner.
Thank you very much.