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Alzheimer's, asthma, cancer, malaria and TB focus of new Singapore grants

Over 50 research grants totaling $24 million in U.S. dollars have been awarded to Singapore universities, research institutes and hospitals to fund studies related to asthma and other immune system disorders, infectious diseases, aging and cancer.

The extramural grants were awarded by the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) of A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), the government agency driving Singapore's transformation into an international powerhouse in the biomedical and physical sciences.

In addition to extramural research grants, A*STAR sponsors the research institutes at Singapore's Biopolis and Fusionopolis.

The common dust mite, Blomia tropicalis, which can have an immense impact on quality of life and even be life threatening when it causes allergies in patients with chronic diseases such as cancer, is the focus of three grants awarded to Chua Kaw Yan, Ph.D., of the National University of Singapore's Department of Pediatrics.

One of Dr. Chua's studies will examine the mechanisms of an oral vaccine against the predominant allergen, the "Blo t 5" protein, in B. tropicalis, which is responsible for 60-70% of allergy cases in Singapore, including asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema.

Optimizing the potency of a genetic vaccine against the dust mite will be the focus of her second grant, while the third project will be directed at creating a modified or "recombinant" protein to foster immunity against Blo t 5.

"Immunotherapy remains the only truly disease-modifying treatment for asthma and allergic rhinitis," said Dr. Chua. "Traditional forms of immunotherapy use natural sources of allergens and have numerous disadvantages, such as the presence of undefined material, huge variability in sample composition, and contamination of allergens from other sources.

"We therefore hope to use the major allergen, Blo t 5, to develop a novel and effective therapeutic vaccine for immunotherapy," she added.

Grants also were awarded to support research using genomics, proteomics and bioimaging to investigate the mechanisms of infection in tuberculosis and malaria, which cause deaths as well as serious illness despite widespread efforts to prevent their transmission.

In their studies of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB), which infects an estimated two billion people worldwide, National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS) scientists will sift through a bank of DNA samples extracted from drug-resistant MTB strains to identify novel mutated genes conferring resistance to Isoniazid, the main drug now used to treat tuberculosis.

In Singapore, the incidence rate of tuberculosis has increased for the first time in 10 years, leading to concerns over increased transmission of the MTB bacteria.

Ann Lee, Ph.D., who heads the NCCS research team that will investigate MTB, said: "The identification of additional genes associated with Isoniazid resistance is important for the development of comprehensive molecular strategies that are potentially more efficient than current susceptibility testing methods, and could aid in giving more appropriate treatment to patients and decrease the spread of resistant strains. In addition, the discovery of new genes may reveal novel targets suitable for the development of alternative therapeutic options."

At Nanyang Technological University (NTU), a research team led by Peter Preiser, Ph.D., was awarded a grant to conduct basic research on the pathology of malaria, which infects as many as 600 million people worldwide and kills over 1 million yearly.

"A key challenge to successful malaria intervention is our limited understanding of how the malarial parasite evades detection by the spleen our immune system's control centre," said Dr. Preiser. "With this grant, we will use new imaging tools to visualise and measure how many parasites are eliminated in the spleen.

"This work will give us a better understanding on which factors, both from the host as well as the parasite, contribute to the efficiency of parasite removal and could lead to new intervention strategies against the parasite," he added.

A*STAR also will fund research projects on such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. At NUS, Gavin Dawe, Ph.D., and his colleagues will explore the signaling mechanisms behind Alzheimer's disease, building on the group's discovery of an important protein interaction that suppresses neural cell formation in the brains of mice, and that might be relevant to Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia among older people.

"In this project, we will investigate whether this protein interaction also occurs in human stem cells and in the adult mouse brain, as well as how it influences stem cell function," said Dr. Dawe. "Our findings will increase our understanding of what these proteins do in the brain and in the long term, this knowledge may contribute to the development of treatments for Alzheimer's disease."

Among the recipients of grants to support cancer research is Shazib Pervaiz, Ph.D., of NUS for his team's examination of how statins cholesterol-lowering drugs may restrict growth and induce death of cancer cells.

"Current breast cancer therapies include surgery, anti-cancer drugs and radiation, which are invasive or run the risk of relapse," said Dr. Pervaiz. "Our team aims to characterise the interactions of statins with other proteins known to promote cell death and survival, and subsequently explore the potential for statins to fill the gap in novel strategies for more effective and less invasive treatment of breast and other forms of cancer."

BMRC Chairman Sir George Radda, Ph.D., said, "The grant calls underscore A*STAR's commitment to foster excellent scientific research and talent in Singapore. The wide range of research areas covered under the grant calls is indicative of the spectrum of biomedical capabilities we have built up in Singapore over the years, as well as the high quality of our researchers. I look forward to the exciting and innovative discoveries that will result from the research the scientists are able to carry out with the funding from A*STAR."


Contact: Cathy Yarbrough
Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore

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