News: LKCMedicine leads research to tackle osteoarthritis supported by S$1.2 million gift


By Kimberley Wang, Manager, Media and Publications, Communications and Outreach

NTU Singapore scientists are aiming to develop novel treatments to tackle a common ageing-related joint condition called osteoarthritis, supported by a S$1.2 million gift from StemiGen Therapeutics, a Singapore biotechnology company.

Seated: Dr James Hsieh, CEO, StemiGen Therapeutics (left) and Ms Lien Siaou-Sze, NTU Vice President, University Advancement. Standing (from left): Mr Steven Lim, Chairman, StemiGen Therapeutics; Guest-of-Honour Prof Benjamin Seet, Deputy Group CEO (Education & Research) of National Healthcare Group; and Prof Joseph Sung, LKCMedicine Dean and NTU Senior Vice-President (Health & Life Sciences). (Photo credit: StemiGen Therapeutics)

The StemiGen – LKCMedicine Regenerative Medicine Research Fund will boost efforts to close the gap in osteoarthritis research, and develop effective treatments that can benefit this growing group of patients, amid an ageing population in Singapore. 

This research initiative is in line with the NTU 2025 strategic plan, which aims to address some of the grand challenges facing humanity including responding to the needs and challenges of healthy living and ageing.

Osteoarthritis, a condition characterised by chronic knee, back and joint pains, is a highly prevalent disease. It is caused by the degradation of articular cartilage – white  tissue that covers the ends of bones where they meet to form joints. This degradation causes excessive bone growth, joint swelling, and inflammation, leading to acute pain and the gradual loss of mobility.

In Singapore, musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis are among the leading cause of disability, ill-health, or early death.1 About 80 per cent of patients have limited movement and 25 per cent cannot perform basic daily activities.2 Moreover, the disease is costly to treat. In the United States, medical care top US$185 billion per year for 27 million osteoarthritis patients, according to published figures.3

While there are many research initiatives on preventing or slowing the worsening of osteoarthritis, there are no drugs or treatments that can halt or reverse disease progression.

Research on stem cell and drug delivery for osteoarthritis

LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine Yen Choo

“A rapidly ageing population in Singapore and around the world presents an unprecedented set of challenges for healthcare systems. Osteoarthritis is one of the most prevalent diseases associated with ageing and finding an effective treatment or therapy will have profound socio-economic consequences,” said LKCMedicine Principal Investigator, Associate Professor of Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine Yen Choo. Two research projects on knee osteoarthritis that will benefit from the funding are underway in his laboratory.

In the late stage of osteoarthritis, a surgical procedure to realign the leg bones using artificial bone substitutes, such as 3D printed scaffolds, is often performed on patients to relieve pressure on the affected joint. However, the natural process of bone formation and healing can take a while post-surgery.

To accelerate this regeneration process and healing, a research team led by A/Prof Choo will investigate a method of incorporating osteogenic (bone) stem cells into 3D printed scaffolds for bone regeneration. 

StemiGen Therapeutics will contribute to the project by manufacturing large quantities of clinical grade stem cells for the application. The project will also involve two other industry collaborators, NTU spin-off Osteopore International and London-based stem cell technology company Plasticell. 

Another project led by A/Prof Choo will look at cartilage repair for knee osteoarthritis using drugs. Previous research has discovered drugs that can stimulate cartilage growth, but successful drug delivery remains a problem. 

With support from NTU materials scientists, biochemical engineers and biological sciences experts, the research team hopes to develop a method to deliver the drugs and retain them in the joint effectively, leading to cartilage regeneration and consequently, to delay or reverse progression of knee osteoarthritis. 

The NTU research team anticipates product development and animal trials to take place approximately within three years, and human clinical trials to start thereafter if successful. 

Professor Joseph Sung, LKCMedicine Dean and NTU Senior Vice-President (Health & Life Sciences), noted, “NTU Singapore is well-placed to bring together the diverse mix of scientists for highly interdisciplinary research such as regenerative medicine. Leveraging the university’s strengths in engineering and biomedical research, and LKCMedicine’s focus on translational research, the gift will go towards developing innovative tools and therapies that will be beneficial for patients.”

Gift to advance regenerative medicine research

The S$1.2 million gift to NTU was formalised at a signing ceremony on 20 April between Ms Lien Siaou-Sze, NTU Vice President, University Advancement and Dr James Hsieh, CEO, StemiGen Therapeutics, which was attended by Guest-of-Honour Professor Benjamin Seet, Deputy Group CEO (Education & Research) of the National Healthcare Group. 

The gift to NTU is the first by the company to a single beneficiary. With matching by the Singapore government, the total fund raised is S$2.4 million under the LKCMedicine Endowment Fund.

Mr Lim Kun Lim, Chairman, StemiGen Therapeutics, said, “It has been my dream to be able to make transformational changes in upping the quality of life through breakthroughs in medical research. We hope that our gift of S$1.2 million can, in some small way, invigorate efforts to fulfilling possibilities.”

Dr Hsieh said, “Stem cell therapy has tremendous potential to revolutionise healthcare in Singapore. Over the past two decades, an ageing population has brought about challenges including chronic conditions and other diseases that current treatments are unable to cure. To provide better treatments to change those outcomes, regenerative medicine is part of the answer. 

“Creation of the StemiGen – LKCMedicine Regenerative Medicine Research Fund will be a first step to develop the know-how and technologies to manufacture and administer stem cell therapies safely, effectively, and affordably. The fund will also be used to support in the development of more qualified regenerative medicine scientists and practitioners.”

The gift is the latest boost that LKCMedicine has received for stem cell and regenerative medicine research. In 2020, a $10 million National Research Foundation Competitive Research Programme grant was awarded to LKCMedicine Vice-Dean (Research) Professor Lim Kah Leong, who is leading a multi-institutional team on Regenerative Medicine for Parkinson’s and Adult Macular Degeneration. Last year, a team led by LKCMedicine Professor Philip Ingham FRS for Stem Cell and Organoids research was awarded a $10 million MOE Tier 3 grant.



1Singapore Burden of Disease Study 2017

2 T. Neogi, The epidemiology and impact of pain in osteoarthritis, Osteoarthritis and Cartilage 21(9) (2013) 1145-1153. 

3 S. Rundell, A. Goode, P. Suri, P. Heagerty, B. Comstock, J. Friedly, L. Gold, Z. Bauer, A. Avins, S. Nedeljković, D. Nerenz, L. Kessler, J. Jarvik, The impact of comorbid knee and hip osteoarthritis on longitudinal clinical and health care use outcomes in older adults with new visits for back pain, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 98 (2016).