How a scientist in Singapore is innovating with microRNA to tackle cancer
Zou Ruiyang has always been interested in how our bodies work. As a PhD student at the National University of Singapore, he focused on metabolic engineering: engineering the genes of bacteria to make the production of chemicals, generating hundreds of new bacteria strains – an indication of how innovation has always been at the core of what he does.
But it was another project within the laboratory in which he was working that caught Ruiyang’s eye. It was one to design chemical assays, or tests, that can be used in microRNA (miRNA) development. miRNA is the smallest genetic material ever found in human and other living organisms. It accounts for between one-hundredth and one-twentieth of the human genome, and regulates around a third of protein-coding genes in our body.
“One day I saw they were doing those empirical designs to try and develop the assays,” he says. “It takes time and is quite a lot of work to do.” Ruiyang thought he could help them streamline the process by writing computer scripts that the scientists could use to predict the best design for certain genes. Ruiyang was able to develop a piece of software that would analyse genetic codes that could be tested and find useful methods to do so very quickly, which was tested and worked well.
Ruiyang was folded into that research project, and began honing his technology. When he graduated, Ruiyang co-founded MiRXES together with Dr Zhou Lihan, which focuses on the same miRNA that his Associate Professor Too Heng-Phon's laboratory, back at National University of Singapore, focused on.
We know that miRNA is small, but we don’t know all that much about its function in the body – just that it’s important, and that the way miRNA is expressed in the body seems to be linked to cancer diagnosis, progressions and outcome.
MiRXES, a Singapore-headquartered biotechnology company, whose mission is to save and improve lives through early diagnoses with its innovative RNA-powered cancer early detection solutions, aimed to probe that further, and to use miRNA analysis to help spot and treat cancers before they arose – an attempt to innovate in preventive healthcare. It was, he explains, one “very big challenge”. Spun off from Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2014, the company aimed to develop an accurate early detection system for multiple different types of cancer, and make it available to anyone who needs it. It has since gone on to broker partnerships with the multinational biopharma giants.
The company began as a firm of three people, but has since grown exponentially to more than 300 people globally. “We developed this proprietary technology for microRNA detection,” he says. The technology targets circulating miRNAs – especially those with low abundance, which have proved to be associated closely with various human diseases such as cancers. This has laid the foundation for the development and productisation of industry-leading clinical diagnostic assays that the company commits to. Pharmaceutical companies quickly came calling, bringing in revenues that helped grow the business. MiRXES now has offices in its main base of Singapore, as well as across Asia (China and Japan) and in the United States. “The idea of our company is still trying to push this miRNA company towards developing cancer early detection that can help preventive health diagnosis,” says Ruiyang.
But the coronavirus pandemic that has wracked the world saw the company effectively leverage its talent and expertise in RNA technology and infrastructure. It retooled its manufacturing capabilities that it had built for early cancer detection over the years to mass produce the first COVID-19 RT-PCR test kit approved in Singapore. It was a vital weapon in the fight against covid-19. “When covid came, we were developing the first three assays with governments to detect covid,” says Ruiyang. The US, China and Singapore all benefitted from Ruiyang and his colleagues’ expertise in developing assays. The covid-19 assays were launched in February 2020 – before the virus even spread across the world. “It has educated the world about PCR and RNA technology, as well as the importance of early detection. Covid-19 has also brought us the reputational branding,” he says. Since February 2020 MiRXES deployed more than 10 million tests to 45 countries worldwide.
With the global shutdown of health services as doctors and nurses fought to tackle covid, the cancer early detection arm took a backseat and slowed as the company’s technology was deployed in the fight against covid. But Ruiyang believes it will bounce back bigger than ever. “We believe that early prevention is good,” he says. It also makes economic sense. Rather than spending $100,000 on a cancer once it has taken over a body, says Ruiyang, you should intervene before it takes hold. “Instead, you can spend a fraction of the cost to screen for a cancer at the early stage – and at that early stage you can do simple surgery or treatment to cure cancer.”
That early diagnosis and treatment is key, he says, to tackling cancer. And it’s one that others believe in, too: the company recently closed a funding round to accelerate its push to deliver cancer early detection tests and preventive healthcare globally, as well as bring its tech to new countries. “We’re going to extend the use of the technologies to various diseases in various countries,” he says, “bringing this innovation to many other people.”
Biography / key highlights
2007 Graduates from Nankai University in Tianjin, China, with a double degree in science and engineering
2013 Completes a PhD in chemical and pharmaceutical engineering fromSingapore-MIT alliance (National University of Singapore and MIT), Singapore
2014 Becomes head of Bioinformatics at the MicroRNA Signature Identification Center, A*STAR
2014 Sets up MiRXES as co-founder and chief technology officer