From Germany to Singapore: Breaking New Ground for Tissue Engineering R&D


In Singapore, academic, clinical, and industrial efforts are increasingly being directed toward the use of molecular- and cell-based therapies for diagnosis and treatment of a great number and broad variety of pathologies and injuries. Tissue engineering is next only to genetic engineering as the widely heralded health care technology heir of the revolutionary advances in the life sciences. In a cost-controlled health care environment, only those technologies capable of providing a major enhancement to the quality of life and a reduction in cost will be driven forward.

Tissue engineering, a truly multidisciplinary field, applies the principles of engineering, life sciences, and basic science to the development of viable substitutes, which restore, maintain, or improve the function of human tissues. One particular field of tissue engineering studies is the use of scaffold-assisted, cell-driven technologies to prefabricate specific tissue phenotypes. If the patient's own cells are used to initiate and drive the physiological processes of cell multiplication and differentiation, extracellular matrix production, and creation of tissue architecture, the potential for growing an immunologically matched implant exists.

In 1998, Swee Hin Teoh of the department of mechanical engineering at National University of Singapore visited a number of universities in the United States and Europe to explore new research directions in the new millennium. Based on the discussions he had with leading researchers in the area of biomedical sciences, and as director of the Laboratory of Biomedical Engineering (LBME), he decided to move into the area of tissue engineering. With that plan, he came to Freiburg, Germany, to offer me a position to start a tissue engineering group in LBME. I had a similar offer from the Albert Ludwigs University at Freiburg then, but I decided to take the position at the National University of Singapore. I was keen to change my career and move full-time into academia. In addition to the professional motivation for change, my family and I were keen to move to Southeast Asia because my spouse used to travel in the region frequently and was familiar with the culture and the people. Furthermore, having lectured at three conferences in Singapore in 1997 and 1998, I was convinced that the National University of Singapore would launch a number of new programs in the biomedical sciences, which would give me the opportunity to pursue excellent research.

Anticipating the need for more foreign talents to kick-start the formation of a strong tissue engineering group, I contacted an ex-collaborator of mine, Bojorn Stark, who is directing one of the biggest tissue engineering groups in Germany. During a research meeting, he told his group at the University Hospital in Freiburg that there was a postdoc position open at the National University of Singapore. A registrar in his plastic surgery department, Thorsten Schantz, responded and moved to Singapore in August 1999, together with his spouse. He had his medical training at Harvard Medical School and already had 2 years of experience in tissue engineering. This was the start of not only of a great work relationship but also of a close friendship between us.

As the tissue engineering research group is strongly directed towards clinical applications, Schantz acts as a facilitator to bring surgeons and clinicians to the research program. In harnessing together the research already in progress and the strengths available in the university as a collaborative multidisciplinary approach, we believe that Singapore is ready to enter the global tissue engineering arena. Collectively, the interdisciplinary group has an unusual combination of expertise in the design and fabrication of scaffolds, material science, cell and molecular biology, and the culturing and seeding of human mesenchymal cells. It is also providing a leadership role in the development of tissue engineering concepts in Southeast Asia. Through affiliations with tissue engineering groups at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Charitee Clinic, Berlin, the group has gained additional international collaborative expertise. Currently, corporate partners have also become interested in the opportunity to gain a leading position in the next crucial phase of this field of tissue engineering in Southeast Asia.

* Dr. Hutmacher currently holds a joint position at the Division of Bioengineering, Faculty of Engineering and at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, at the National University of Singapore. His research focuses on tissue engineering of bone, cartilage, and skin. From 1989 to 1994, he worked in Germany for several international medical device companies and was a founder and managing director of an R&D enterprise from 1992 to 1994. He ran his own consulting business in the area of life sciences from 1995 to 1998 and lectured on a part-time basis at the University of Applied Sciences, Offenburg, from 1991 to 1998. Dr. Schantz is a research scientist at LBME and a member of the Plastic Surgery Division at the National University Hospital, Singapore.

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