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SMART Researchers Awarded Intra-CREATE Grant for Personalised Medicine and Cell Therapy

Funds from National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore grants will support research into glaucoma progression through retinal biometrics and neural cell implantation therapy for spinal cord injury.

Researchers from Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized Medicine (CAMP), an interdisciplinary research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have been awarded Intra-CREATE grants from the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore to help support research on retinal biometrics for glaucoma progression and neural cell implantation therapy for spinal cord injuries. The grants are part of the NRF’s initiative to bring researchers together from Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) partner institutions, in order to achieve greater impact from collaborative research efforts.

“Singapore’s well-established biopharmaceutical ecosystem brings with it a thriving research ecosystem that is supported by skilled talents and strong manufacturing capabilities. We are excited to collaborate with our partners in Singapore, bringing together an interdisciplinary group of experts from MIT and Singapore, for new research areas at SMART. In addition to our existing research on our three flagship projects, we hope to develop breakthroughs in manufacturing other cell therapy platforms that will enable better medical treatments and outcomes for society,” said Krystyn Van Vliet, co-lead Principal Investigator at SMART CAMP, and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.

SMART CAMP, formed in 2019, focuses on ways to produce living cells as medicine in order to treat a range of illnesses and medical conditions, including tissue degenerative diseases, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.

SMART CAMP’s first research project funded by the grants, Retinal Analytics via Machine Learning Aiding Physics (RAMP), aims to establish models of glaucoma progression in patients by using retinal biomechanics. The team, consisting of an interdisciplinary group of ophthalmologists, data scientists, and optical scientists from SMART, the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Duke-NUS Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and National University of Singapore (NUS), hopes to use the models to predict the rate and trajectory of glaucoma progression quickly and reliably, leading to better and more targeted treatments.

Currently, health practitioners face challenges in forecasting glaucoma progression and its treatment strategies due to a lack of research and technologies that can accurately establish the relationship between glaucoma’s properties (e.g. blood flow, intraocular pressure) and the damage to the optic nerve head. Glaucoma is an eye condition often caused by stress-induced damage at the optic nerve head, and accounts for 5.1 million of the estimated 38 million blind in the world and 40 percent of blindness in Singapore.

“We look forward to leveraging the ideas fostered in SMART CAMP to build data analytics and optical imaging capabilities for this pressing medical challenge of glaucoma prediction,” said MIT Professor George Barbastathis, one of the principal investigators at SMART CAMP.

The second research project, Engineering Scaffold-Mediated Neural Cell Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury Treatment (ScaNCellS), aims to design a safe and effective combined scaffold/neural cell implantation therapy for spinal cord injury, with the hopes that similar neural cell therapies may be used for other neurological disorders in future. Current therapies for spinal cord injuries generally result in some incurable impairment, even with the best possible treatment.

Spinal cord injury (SCI) affects 250,000-500,000 people annually and can lead to temporary or permanents changes in spinal cord function, such as numbness or paralysis. It is expected to incur higher societal costs compared to other conditions such as dementia, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy.

The project, an intersection of engineering and health, will achieve its goals through an enhanced biological understanding of the regeneration process of nerve tissue and optimised engineering methods to prepare cells and biomaterials for treatment. It brings together a team of engineers, cell biologists, and clinician scientists from SMART, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), NUS, IMCB A*STAR, A*STAR, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), University of Cambridge, and MIT.

NTU’s Professor Chew Sing Ying, a principal investigator at SMART CAMP said, “Our earlier SMART and NTU scientific collaborations on progenitor cells in the central nervous system are now being extended to cell therapy translation. This helps us address SCI in a new way and connects to the methods of quality analysis for cells developed in SMART CAMP.”

“Cell therapy, one of the fastest-growing areas of research, will provide patients with access to more options that will prevent and treat illnesses, some of which are currently incurable. Glaucoma and spinal cord injuries affect many. Our research will seek to plug current gaps and deliver valuable impact to cell therapy research and medical treatments for both conditions. With a good foundation to work on, we will be able to pave the way for future exciting research for further breakthroughs that will benefit the healthcare industry and society,” said Hanry Yu, co-lead principal investigator at SMART CAMP, Professor of Physiology with the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS, and Group Leader of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at A*STAR.

The grants for both projects will commence on 1st October, with RAMP expected to run until 30th September 2022 and ScaNCellS expected to run until 30th September 2023. [APBN]