By Economist Impact | 30 Jan 2023
Cancer. A global disease that continues to plague people and their loved ones. During 2020, more than 19 million new cancer cases and 10 million cancer deaths were recorded globally. The number of cancer-related fatalities worldwide is predicted to top 20 million by 2035. For most of us, the past few years will be remembered for the continued presence of COVID-19. What is often overlooked, however, are the myriad of other illnesses like cancer that prevailed during this time.
To counter the onward march of such diseases, the medical community must switch its focus from treating illnesses to preventing them, says Dr Zhao Pan, vice-president of Genomics at MiRXES. “Healthcare is undergoing a paradigm shift made possible by the advancement of technology, and preventive healthcare is a new lifestyle to all of us.”
Saving and improving lives through early detection and interception is the mission of Zhao’s company. MiRXES’s microRNA-powered cancer early detection tests have been particularly successful so far. “Our flagship product, GASTROClear, is the world’s first approved molecular blood screening test for gastric cancer. In a three-year prospective clinical trial that enrolled 5,248 patients, it detected up to 90% of Stage 1 gastric cancer cases, which were mostly asymptomatic.”
Purpose with passion
Since 2019, almost 20,000 patients in Southeast Asia and China have benefited from GASTROClear. MiRXES is now accelerating the development and commercialisation of its pipeline of lung, liver, colorectal, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, with the goal of launching a new blood-based cancer screening test every year.
Responsible for the company’s product and service pipelines, Zhao is motivated by a sense of purpose. One of her motives for becoming a biologist was to help empower physicians to improve patient outcomes.
“Science and technology are developing at an incredible speed, and our understanding of diseases and the human body is evolving very fast too,” she says. “Physicians are the frontline troops fighting against diseases. It’s extremely important that we supply the frontline with the best tools and ammunition that science can produce.”
The predicted number of cancer-related fatalities worldwide by 2035
Despite her vast experience and deep knowledge of medical science, Zhao describes herself as a simple person, craving a stable environment where she can focus on making a positive impact on society through her knowledge and abilities. “Compared to our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, I’m extremely grateful that we are able to enjoy the stability and freedom to explore our passions and interests,” she says. “We should treasure them, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The power of collective effort
Zhao’s studies and work experience were critical building blocks in her career. She obtained her PhD in microbiology from the National University of Singapore (NUS), and later gained a master’s degree in medical genetics from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. During her final year at NUS, Zhao first attended the Institute of Molecular Cell Biology. The autonomous research institute based in the purpose-built Biopolis, is part of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR.
“Biopolis is an amazing location for a leading biotechnology company like MiRXES,” she says. “As a research hub for biomedical sciences, it promotes collaboration between private companies and public scientific or educational institutes.” She feels that being amid a close-knit community of science-based businesses and leading learning institutions enables advances in technology development and commercialisation at the cutting-edge.
“Biopolis is where a global pool of talent in the biomedical sciences industry gathers—much like the atmosphere in Silicon Valley or Harvard University.”
The amount of public sector research funding that has been committed to Singapore’s Health and Biomedical Sciences domain
These factors convinced the scientist that this was a place with the drive to match her own. “Through the establishment and continuous development of Biopolis, it’s clear that Singapore has the vision, drive and commitment to become Asia’s biomedical sciences hub. This makes it an excellent choice for like-minded biomedical talent to come spread their wings and showcase their talent and innovation,” she says.
To date, $2.9 billion in public sector research funding has been committed to the nation’s Health and Biomedical Sciences domain. Drawn to its deep base of skilled talent, strong manufacturing capabilities and thriving research ecosystem, the city-state already hosts commercial activities for leading global biomedical giants like GSK, MSD and Roche, as well as manufacturing plants for the likes of Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi, AbbVie and Amgen; with eight of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical and medical technology firms having bases in Singapore.
A supportive environment
Since graduating in 2011, Zhao has risen up the ranks in her industry, holding senior positions within a number of prominent start-ups, each highly rated in its respective field. “Post-graduation, I started as a R&D scientist in a start-up. Subsequently, I joined another start-up, before going on to become a co-founder of one myself,” she says. Between 2016 and 2019, Zhao was co-founder and chief commercial officer at Lucence Diagnostics, a company dedicated to early cancer detection and treatment.
As her career progressed, Zhao began to appreciate the factors that are critical for biomedical innovation—starting with the notion that in her field, an open-door policy is a huge advantage. “The scientific community has historically been collaborative, and the city-state’s neutrality as a country has played an important role in giving access to both the regional markets and global markets like America and China.”
This stance was further underlined in the support given to like-minded start-ups. “As someone who has tried setting up businesses in various countries, I value the convenience and accessibility that is provided to businesses,” she says. “The nation has been a great advocate of preventive healthcare, as we can see through the various initiatives and budgets that have been allocated.”
A welcoming and borderless city
For many cities globally, their initial attraction is their hardware, and the efficiency and effectiveness of doing business in them. Over time, Zhao adds, what lasts the longest is appreciation for a city’s most precious asset: its people.
8 out of 10
The number of the world’s top pharmaceutical and medical technology firms with bases in Singapore
A thriving economy, Singapore is in many ways a socially borderless city, with a rich multi-cultural population, coupled with a professional community of industry pioneers. This has contributed to Singapore’s consistent standing as one of the world’s top countries for talent competitiveness.
It’s also a place where great meetings of minds happen by design, thanks to organisations such as the Singapore Global Network. Its mission is to connect professionals from home and overseas, who share experiences, goals and life lessons similar to those of Zhao.
Her message for other movers in biotechnology is simple: come and help make a difference. “Bring your ground-breaking research, innovation and technology to Singapore, as its robust biotechnology ecosystem can help you commercialise—and translate your research from lab to clinic quickly.”