October 2015 | Issue 20
Launch of the Singapore Phenome Centre and NIMBELS

New research cluster to study link between health and environment

NTU Singapore launched a new life sciences research cluster that will study the link between the health of a population and the environment at a ceremony held on 29 September at the Experimental Medicine Building.

Guest-of-Honour Prof Andersson and members of the NIMBELS Cluster launch unveil the NIMBELS Declaration and officially open the Singapore Phenome Centre

The NTU Integrated Medical, Biological & Environmental Life Sciences (NIMBELS) Cluster features Southeast Asia's first phenome centre, which will tackle key areas of research need, such as in ageing, diabetes, gut microbiomes and the urban water cycle.

NIMBELS brings together the life sciences experts at LKCMedicine, the School of Biological Sciences, the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and the NTU Institute of Structural Biology.

NTU President Professor Bertil Andersson said, "To achieve breakthroughs in this modern era of biomedical research involving big data, we need a new approach, a new way of thinking about these challenges. We need solutions that bring together not just the best clinical and biomedical minds, but also involving experts in structural biology, environmental life sciences and computing technologies."

NIMBELS is led by Professor Staffan Kjelleberg, a world expert in environmental microbiology, microbial ecology and biofilm biology.

"This new life sciences cluster that we have formed at NTU will have dedicated new facilities with cutting-edge technologies. It offers a unique research environment and capitalises on the interface between life sciences and excellence in engineering to find solutions to health issues," said Prof Kjelleberg, who is also Director of SCELSE.

Key stakeholders and partners of NIMBELS and the Singapore Phenome Centre with Guest-of-Honour Prof Andersson (centre)

The Singapore Phenome Centre
The NIMBELS Cluster also features the $9 million Singapore Phenome Centre. The new centre brings together LKCMedicine, SCELSE and the School of Biological Sciences. It is an interdisciplinary research platform that has strong industry support from companies such as UK instrument and software giant, Waters Corporation.

 Guests tour the Singapore Phenome Centre as part of the opening ceremony

Research in recent years has shown that diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, cannot be explained by genes alone, but are caused mainly by the interaction between genes and environmental factors, such as lifestyle and diet.

The Singapore Phenome Centre at NTU seeks to have a better understanding of phenomes, and shed light on how these physical and biochemical traits are produced by the interactions between genes and environmental factors. 

For example, previous studies have found that Asians have a higher risk of diabetes and heart attacks compared to Europeans. In the case of diabetes, it also develops at a much younger age and is now becoming an epidemic in Asia.

LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best, who chairs the new centre, said: "We intend to characterise the unique Asian phenotypes by working with clinicians from across Singapore, so that we can offer tailored therapies for individuals. We also hope to identify new biomarkers that can be used at a population level to assist people to lead healthier lives."

In addition, studying phenomes of environmental ecosystems such as the urban water cycle, will provide information that will aid environmental sustainability.

Mike Harrington, Vice President for European & Asia Pacific Operations of the Waters Division at Waters Corporation, said: "Through collaborations like this with NTU, Waters is committed to working alongside world-leading scientists to help solve critical public health challenges. We believe there are no limits to the potential breakthroughs the field of phenomics offers to analyse vast numbers of samples, identify new biomarkers, and provide new insight into the causes of chronic disease."

Centre to partner international network led by Imperial College London
To better develop medical innovations in human diseases, the Singapore Phenome Centre aims to link with an international network that will be initiated by the MRC-NIHR (Medical Research Council – National Institute for Health Research) National Phenome Centre at Imperial.

Professor Jeremy Nicholson, Director of the centre at Imperial said, "The harmonisation and standardisation of metabolic phenotyping technologies for human healthcare screening and monitoring operated by the phenome centres will help achieve major advances in personalised and public healthcare based on new knowledge of human biology and gene-environment interactions."

For media coverage of the launch event, please click here.