SINGAPORE – Cell therapy, where living cells are harnessed to treat diseases such as cancer and autoimmune disorders, is slated to be the next generation of medicine.

But before vials of these medicinal cells can reach hospitals, challenges in cell manufacturing, such as safety, efficacy and cost, must be addressed through further research and development.

To meet these challenges, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) launched a multimillion-dollar initiative on Monday (July 15), where 35 scientists from here and abroad will work on three flagship research projects to quicken the cell manufacturing process in Singapore.

Called the Smart Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalised-Medicine (Smart Camp), the initiative will tap an $80 million national fund set aside for advancing cell therapy research.

It was announced in an update on the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan in March that the pool of money will go towards ramping up cell manufacturing capabilities for cell therapy.

Smart Camp, which is a collaboration with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and supported by the National Research Foundation, will receive $10 million a year to sustain its research programmes. The initiative will be housed in  the Campus of Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (Create) at  the National University of Singapore.

In cell therapy, living cells such as stem cells and white blood cells are injected, grafted or implanted into a patient to treat or prevent diseases.

As time is of the essence for many patients, Smart Camp is creating technology that will unblock the bottlenecks in the research process and accelerate the commercialisation of cell therapy products, said Professor Krystyn Van Vliet, co-lead of the programme.

One challenge is in establishing the quality of cells. Currently, to measure quality and identify the proteins in a cell, cell samples must be broken down and destroyed.

“We cannot use those cells any more for treatment, and growing a new batch of cells will take time, and patients do not have that much time,” added Prof Van Vliet, who is also a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Some scientists in Smart Camp are using optics, high-tech microscopes and microfluidics – the science of manipulating and controlling very small amounts of fluids – to create innovations that allow cell quality to be measured without destroying the cell. It will also speed up the quality check process.

Developing such innovations may reduce the cost of cell manufacturing since more automation is employed, said Prof Van Vliet.

Coming up with affordable treatment is also another challenge, as certain cell therapies cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a dose.

Smart Camp’s multidisciplinary team comprises engineers, biologists, clinicians and data analysts from institutions, including local universities, hospitals, A*Star and MIT.

Some of these researchers are working on more than six new technologies to speed up the time needed to test the safety of cell therapy products and meet regulatory issues.

Currently, it takes between a week and a month to find out if a cell product has any contaminants or side effects when used on patients. The researchers are hoping to reduce the time to two days.

Said Prof Van Vliet: “Imagine providing the right living cells – the most sophisticated drug factories we know – to each patient as quickly and safely as possible.

“Delivering on that promise requires exciting changes in the way we understand, engineer, measure and select cells that are safe and effective for the patient’s ailment.”