Scientific Advances in Times of COVID-19: Post-event write-up

Tuesday, Jun 30, 2020 5:30 PM – 6:45 PM

Tuesday,  Jun 30 2020

5:30 PM – 6:45 PM

Zoom Seminar

Written by : Shainan Hora

As part of COVID-19 webinar series, Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) hosted speakers from academic and industry settings to discuss advances in the research community under the new ‘norm’, as well as the research efforts undertaken in facilitating basic and translational research in the fight against SARS-COV-2. The panel included:

  • Prof. Ooi Eng Eong, Professor and Deputy Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Medical School
  • Rajeev Nair, Senior VP and Head of APAC Research Solutions, Life Science, Merck
  • Mark Dupal, APAC Senior Sales Director of Twist Bioscience

The event was moderated by Dr. Natasha Ng, President of BCS and started with Rajeev and Mark introducing their respective companies, the technology pipelines and their unique efforts in tackling the current crisis while managing the global expectations. This was followed by an hour-long panel discussion at the heart of COVID-19 and ended with a Q&A session.

Addressing bottlenecks about COVID-19 Vaccination:

Prof Ooi, co-founder of Tychan, a clinical-stage biotechnology company, discussed his team’s research focus and highlighted how successful treatment strategies against Zika and Yellow Fever prepared them to tackle COVID-19. Tychan was therefore formed as a response to these epidemics and to reduce the developmental time of therapeutics leading to clinical application – a major unmet need in healthcare. Their flagship product TY027, a monoclonal antibody designed against spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, is in Phase I trials just four months from initial discovery phase thanks to Tychan’s accelerated technology platform. Nonetheless, the team still has a long way to go as it is building up data to understand what is further needed to bring this drug to market “The idea is to let the data guide us on what should be the next steps; safety and efficacy is the top priority for now”, says Prof Ooi.

When asked about earliest available vaccination timeline and if mutations would have any effect, Prof Ooi explained that the real challenge would be in ensuring lasting immunity and monitoring the population (in case booster shots are required), while mitigating the manufacturing, pricing and logistic issues to meet the demands globally. Unlike an antibody response that is targeted and might be rendered ineffective upon virus mutation, the coronavirus phylogenetic tree is decently conserved, and would elicit an effective polyclonal response in vaccinated individuals. Dr. Ooi also explained the possibility of unique biomarker profiles, if any, and shared how his team monitored host gene signature response in COVID-19 patients over the course of illness, only to be discouraged by dynamic findings. “With patient data, to understand what gene signatures to look at, it is crucial to know the exact day of infection; it’s impossible to implement this in a healthcare setting”, he said.

Research solutions during COVID-19:

Rajeev and Mark each explained their companies’ steadfast approach to meet global demands while ensuring business continuity. Merck created a task force to interact with customers and brought together technologists and data scientists, among others, to understand the need-of-the-hour and formed three focus areas – diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. From supplying a whole range of consumables and products for virus detection, characterization, vaccine production and therapy production (https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/covid-19.html) to repurposing the production line as a global supplier, Merck has supported scientific efforts around the globe through its flexible manufacturing solutions.

As a global engagement strategy, Twist Bioscience launched the synthetic RNA controls, respiratory virus research panel (allowing for detection of multiple viral pathogens from a single sample) and target enrichment NGS panels for virus detection and characterization (https://www.twistbioscience.com/coronavirus-research-tools?tab=new-products). Twist will be joining the international alliance led by Proteona (a local biotechnology startup specializing in single cell proteogenomics approach) to develop neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19 for immunocompromised patients, along-with assistance from 10x Genomics and NovogeneAIT. The idea is to perform single cell analysis of antibodies targeting multiple viral variants, determine their sequences and then bulk manufacture the functional protein – in this case IgG.

On business impacted due to COVID-19 and measures undertaken to mitigate the supply chain issues, both Rajeev and Mark credited their team’s resilience and professionalism in holding the flame alive and finding innovative solutions to move forward in these trying times.  When asked to comment on different needs across the APAC research community and how Merck has played a role through the years, Rajeev highlighted how his company has embraced growth opportunities by opening M LabTM Collaboration Center as well as the first GMP BioReliance® biosafety testing lab in Singapore, supporting biotech and pharmaceutical companies locally and across other Asian countries by providing capability training and optimizing research and bio-development processes. Trained professionals are then sought-after by pharmaceutical companies as global and regional healthcare demands continue to grow – thus making it a co-dependent process.

Addressing research breakthroughs, skills and personal impact during COVID-19:

There are potential breakthroughs every day, however it is hard to keep abreast with all information/misinformation. Prof. Ooi cautioned that everything should be taken with a pinch of salt – “The real challenge is to filter out the signal from noise and then manoeuvre your own way through”. Rajeev stressed the importance of communication within the team and with customers; to not lose sight of the bigger picture and to reinstate the purpose of it all. Mark summed up as – “It is important to collaborate with the right experts in the field and there shouldn’t be any compromise on that”.

On skills that are much needed, Rajeev mentioned that most important thing to master is a right learning attitude, agility to adapt, positive mindset and listening skills – “It may seem very simple, but the initial phase of listening to scientists in-house and the customers can help to address any problem”. COVID-19 has also brought in a digital revolution with everyone embracing the various online platforms. There is also a new directed focus to build more digital capability in the workforce and to leverage the online platforms from a growth trajectory point of view.

The webinar ended on a positive note with each speaker discussing the greatest impact the past months have had on them. From Mark and Rajeev highlighting how amazing it was to see people from different backgrounds as well as their own team come together with novel solutions, to Prof Ooi sharing his rewarding experience of doing science from bench to bedside in a very short span of time.

The organizers would like to thank the speakers for sharing their views, Duke-NUS for assisting the event, Merck and Twist Bioscience for supporting the event, as well as all the participants for their engaging interest

Some of the other key take-aways are outlined below:

  • The amount of collaboration that has been happening globally is astonishing. As a research community, retaining at least 10% of it would greatly propel and benefit healthcare sector for the years to come.
  • Singapore is uniquely positioned in the evolving bio-pharmaceutical sector – vaccine and antibody development are going to be the next global focus; as a civilization we can’t afford to go through this kind of pandemic again.
  • Taking old manufacturing techniques and re-engineering them using modern molecular biology techniques coupled with digital breakthroughs will fundamentally shape the up-and-coming technologies – Imagination is really the only thing that can limit us.

Supported by

Merck

Merck, a leading science and technology company, operates across healthcare, life science and performance materials. Around 57,000 employees work to make a positive difference to millions of people’s lives every day by creating more joyful and sustainable ways to live. From advancing gene editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices – the company is everywhere. In 2019, Merck generated sales of € 16.2 billion in 66 countries.
The Life Science business sector of Merck offers a broad portfolio of tools and solutions with more than 300,000 products, ranging from lab water systems to gene editing tools, antibodies, cell lines, to end-to-end solutions to help customers in developing and manufacturing drugs. We work closely with our customers from academia, biotech and pharma to help deliver the promise of their work better, faster and safer

Twist Bioscience

At Twist Bioscience, we work in service of customers who are changing the world for the better. In fields such as medicine, agriculture, industrial chemicals and data storage, by using our synthetic DNA tools, our customers are developing ways to better lives and improve the sustainability of the planet. The faster our customers succeed, the better for all of us, and Twist Bioscience is uniquely positioned to help accelerate their efforts. Our innovative silicon-based DNA Synthesis Platform provides precision at a scale that is otherwise unavailable to our customers. Our platform technologies overcome inefficiencies and enable cost-effective, rapid, precise, high-throughput synthesis and sequencing, providing both the quality and quantity of the tools they need to rapidly realize the opportunity ahead.

Biotech Connection Singapore (BCS) is part of an international network of non-profit organizations, that aims to promote the transfer of ideas from theory to real world applications by providing a platform for fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

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