From next year, a trip to your optician could end up saving your eyesight.
That is, if local start-up Algo Access has anything to say about it. In December last year, the firm bought licensing rights to one of the projects under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Biomedical Engineering Programme (BEP).
Dubbed the automatic glaucoma diagnosis and its genetic association study through medical image informatics (AGLAIA) project, the tool is used to screen for glaucoma - an eye disease that can result in blindness in advanced cases - and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Algo Access eventually hopes to use the tool to screen for diabetes as well.
The image processing software scans and analyses a shot of a patient's retina, which can be taken at the optician's using a Fundus camera, in about a minute.
Co-founder of Algo Access Julian Low said that it is beta-testing the screening tool with a handful of opticians, with an eye on rolling it out to the market in 2014, subject to regulatory approvals.
"We screen for certain signs and the moment there is a risk factor, we will send an automated report to the optician," said Mr Low, adding that as Singapore ages as a population, such screening tests are important. "What we're trying to encourage is early detection."
While glaucoma cannot be reversed, it can be controlled with treatment, especially if detected early enough. Singapore, with its high rate of myopia and diabetes, will serve as a testbed before an eventual launch in other countries such as China, India and the US, said Mr Low. Last year, 11.3 per cent of the adult population here was said to have diabetes, a condition which increases the risk of glaucoma.
A*Star's BEP, which was set up in 2009, links up clinicians, engineers and scientists through regular forums and workshops to develop possible solutions to medical problems. Nearly 50 projects have been funded under the BEP over the last five years, including the Advanced Rehabilitation Therapy for Stroke Based on Brain-Computer Interface (ArtsBCI) project which is also on the road to commercialisation.
NeuroStyle, a Singapore-based joint venture between Brilliant Medical Systems (Singapore) and Shanghai NCC Electronics (China), is in talks to license the ArtsBCI project, which has been developed by researchers at A*Star's Institute of Infocomm Research. The project aims to enhance quality of life for stroke patients by helping to restore bodily functions through neurological therapy.
About 10 of the 50 projects under the BEP umbrella are in clinical trials now. Projects are typically funded in two stages - proof of concept or prototype ($500,000) followed by proof of value which requires undergoing clinical trials (some $1.5 million). The entire process could take close to three years at the least.
This comes at a point where Singapore's medical technology sector is gaining traction. Manufacturing output has more than doubled over the last decade, growing from $1.72 billion in 2002 to $4.16 billion in 2012, according to the Economic Development Board (EDB). The sector is targeting an output in the region of $5 billion come 2015.
Meanwhile, the sector - which accounts for nearly two thirds of the biomedical sciences manufacturing workforce - provided some 9,920 jobs last year, up from about 4,520 in 2002 and 9,660 in 2011, data from EDB shows. Local and global medtech companies based here include Biosensors, Becton Dickinson, Medtronic and Veredus Laboratories.
One of the factors that has been fuelling the development of Singapore's medtech industry is the rise of Asia as a growth market, said Tan Sze Wee, deputy executive director for A*Star's Biomedical Research Council.
The Asia-Pacific medical device market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.6 per cent to US$71 billion by 2015, a report from the Medical Device + Diagnostic Industry magazine said. This is up from US$55 billion presently.
In the past, devices available here were typically made for patients in the West but that is changing. Singapore with its different races is an ideal location for research and clinical trials, enabling companies to create products that can cater to Asia as a whole by building them with Asian patients in mind. In addition, the city-state can serve as a testbed before it is launched in other Asian countries.
"Companies have to learn to localise in markets for markets because they have to differentiate themselves among each other and also compete against the local companies," Prof Tan pointed out. "Conditions here are as good as Europe, North America, Japan."
Medical devices also require a shorter time span to take to market - regulatory approvals and all - and aren't as capital intensive as drugs. Prof Tan estimates that a medical device could require investments of $20 million to $40 million and a time span of five to seven years to develop, while a pharmaceutical company may be forced to devote US$2 billion to US$3 billion in funding and at least 10-15 years.
Singapore's competitive advantage where medtech is concerned could be to make it even easier and quicker for firms to commercialise medtech products, suggested Prof Tan.
"The thing we've recognised as a weakness in all countries across the world is that the regulatory framework is not very certain. There's also a lack of professionals who understand regulatory approval methods.
"To file for registration earlier means the company that's inventing the product knows what sort of data they need to prepare."
Thus, companies need the support of skilled regulatory professionals as there are regulatory requirements throughout each stage of the healthcare product lifecycle - from R&D to clinical testing to registration as well as manufacturing and compliance, for instance. Firms targeting the broader Asian market also need help to carve out a strategy for different markets since the framework can vary in individual markets within a region.
Five local agencies - A*Star, EDB, the Health Sciences Authority, Spring Singapore and the Workforce Development Agency are working with the US-based Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS) to establish a medical device regulatory affairs training programme in Singapore.
"Demand for safe, effective and affordable healthcare products, advanced diagnostic tools and improved outcomes are increasing around the world, and Singapore has become an important hub for medical technology development," said a spokesman for RAPS.
"There is a need to develop a competent regulatory workforce to help build the medical device sector in Singapore, and to drive good regulatory practice and policy."
Slated to begin operations in 2014, the 12-month programme will train medical device regulatory professionals in the regulatory systems of various markets, including the Asia-Pacific.