• The Institute makes a foray into an exciting area of medical research that leverages biodiversity to promote human health and wellness

• Verdant Foundation makes a S$5 million founding gift to support the Institute and its research programmes

Singapore, 17 September 2021 – Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat opened the sixth SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021 today. At the opening ceremony, he launched the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine (BD-MED), a new research institute that will leverage biodiversity such as natural ecosystems and flora to advance biological, health and pharmacological sciences. Verdant Foundation also presented a S$5 million cheque in support of the Institute.

Biodiversity medicine to promote human health and wellness

Biodiversity, or the variety and variability of all lifeforms in their ecological environments, has a deep impact on human health and wellness. According to the World Health Organization, people depend on biodiversity in their daily lives, and the biodiversity of microorganisms, flora and fauna provide extensive knowledge which carry important benefits for biological, health and pharmacological sciences.

The Southeast Asian region has a rich biodiversity landscape. Singapore alone has more than 4,000 local flora species and cultivars, making it an ideal hub for research into biodiversity medicine. BD-MED will study local and regional plant biodiversity – from their genetic make-up to nutritional and medicinal value – and harness the insights and knowledge for applications in medicine and the sciences.

“The application of the knowledge of plants to treat disease and promote health has existed for thousands of years, but there is so much more to learn and much potential for us to advance health and wellness through biodiversity medicine. BD-MED will leverage our rich local and regional biodiversity and cutting-edge research capabilities to drive biodiversity studies to positively impact medicine and health, such as identifying plant components to accelerate drug discovery or manipulating plant biology to enhance their nutritional qualities. I am excited to see how the Institute’s work will benefit not only our patients, but the population for generations to come,” said Professor Ivy Ng, Group CEO, SingHealth.

BD-MED will focus on three signature research programmes that are underpinned by strategic partnerships with local and regional scientific, innovation and environmental agencies. The Herbal Biodiversity and Medicine programme will use innovative technologies to extract and study plant components that may have promising nutraceutical benefits to fight common diseases. This includes identifying molecular pathways and novel phytochemicals for drug discovery and to create alternative therapeutic and nutritional options.

The Food Biodiversity and Nutrition programme will look into “food as medicine”, using food to potentially manage diseases alongside conventional treatment. This programme will also examine the use of nutrient-dense and sustainable food alternatives to boost food security for the future.

The Urban Biodiversity and Wellness programme will study how natural flora and their biodiversity can enhance our living environment and have “healing” effects that promote wellness, including mental health. It will look into plant components that make up their biology, appearance, colour and smell, and examine their applications on health. For example, essential oils distilled from local plants could be used to offer symptomatic relief for patients suffering from anxiety and insomnia.

Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean, Duke-NUS Medical School, said, “BD-MED's research programmes expand our capabilities for preventing and treating disease by leveraging on the concept of ‘Food as Medicine’ to improve patient and population health. This Institute builds on the combined expertise of clinicians and researchers at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre, expanding our ecosystem to accelerate breakthroughs in novel areas of medicine.”

To support its work, BD-MED will develop 12,000 square metres of garden space spread across four SingHealth’s hospitals to grow and study different regional plant species. The gardens are partially funded by the SG Eco Fund.

To commemorate the launching of the Institute, the BD-MED team and scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) also unveiled, for the first time, the genomic make-up of Singapore’s national flower, the Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim (commonly known as the Vanda Miss Joaquim). It is made up of around 33,000 genes, and one of the plant extracts called vandaterosides is known to have biological activities that slow down the skin ageing process.

“Progression in science and medicine is often tied back to the environment and ecosystems we live in, and biodiversity medicine research will have a far-reaching impact on society. Tapping on the wealth of biodiversity in Southeast Asia and Singapore, my team and I hope to delve deep into studying the genetic make-up, nutritional and medicinal benefits of local and regional plants to better understand, prevent and fight diseases, and even contribute to environmental and food sustainability,” said Prof Teh Bin Tean, Director, SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine.

Verdant Foundation’s S$5 million gift to support biodiversity medicine

The Scientific Congress opening ceremony also recognised Verdant Foundation’s generous lead gift of S$5 million to BD-MED, which will support the Institute’s research programmes.

“Biodiversity medicine is an exciting field of research that opens up many possibilities for mankind. I hope that this gift will help bridge the local biodiversity and the research into nutrition, medicine and human health,” said Mr Vincent Cheng, Chairman, Verdant Foundation.

The SingHealth Duke-NUS Scientific Congress 2021 is one of the largest and most distinguished healthcare related scientific events that brings together thought leaders and healthcare professionals to share insights in care improvement, research and education to improve patients' outcomes. Themed “"Revolutionising Medicine – The New Frontier”, the two-day virtual event covers a wide range of research and education-related topics that reflect the evolving healthcare concerns brought about by changing disease patterns.