AMiLi, which stands for Asia Microbiome Library, was set up by Lim, a former surgeon, and two gastroenterologists, Dr David Ong and Dr Jonathan Lee, also the chief scientific officer, in September 2019.
With the aim of understanding the multi-ethnic Asian microbiome, the firm has been building its microbiome bank based on stool samples from donors, developed its personalised nutrition program and five pre/probiotics supplements marketed under the brand Bio & Me.
This year, the company will expand its research interest into areas such as the gut-immune axis and how this could impact allergies among children and serve as an adjunctive cancer therapy.
“For the last three and a half years, we have prioritised on building up the database, understanding what a healthy individual living in multi-ethnic Asia looks like from a microbiome and diet profile.
“Now that we are a little bit older and bigger, we are now expanding our research interest into other fields,” Dr. Lim said.
One of the research projects will look at the links between the gut-immune axis and the incidence of allergies in young children. The research will be conducted with the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
On the other hand, the firm will work with cancer care specialist groups in Singapore to find out how an optimised diet and supplement intake could help prepare patients for immunotherapy.
Research will centre on the immune system and microbiome in patients undergoing cancer therapy.
“A lot of cancer care today is about immunotherapy and about using the body's immune system to fight out more effectively the cancer cells.
“Then the question is, can we prime the immune system, can we by eating the right foods and by taking the right supplements, get the immune system to its optimal state of readiness to take on these cancer cells?” he said.
Engaging the ecosystem
The company has been engaging several research institutions, hospitals, and even the public in promoting the research and understanding of the microbiome.
For example, it is to work with agricultural companies to study the potential health benefits of their produce and developing it into health supplements.
So far, its research with local firm Sustenir and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) has found that kales stalks, rich in dietary fibre, could help Lactobacillus grow multiple times faster than standard solutions.
Aside from kale, AMiLi is studying the health benefits of six to 12 foods, Dr Lim revealed.
“People want healthier, better-for-you food, and the producers and retailers want to fulfill this need, but the market is very noisy with a lot of retailers saying that their products are good…
“It important to have independent validation [of the products’ health benefits] through very good science.
“We at AMiLi have been very privileged to work with many of these parties to analyse their foods, see the health benefits and work with them to improve the health benefits of foods that produce,” he said.
Earlier this year, the company has also started its series of open house, where it gets in touch with the public to spread the knowledge of microbiome.
Is SEA a good place for biotech start-ups to thrive?
Is running a biotech business hard in the Southeast Asia region? Dr. Lim believes a few factors are crucial in making things work.
“I wouldn't short-change us living in Asia, even in Southeast Asia. I think that the talent based here is phenomenal, but you have to look hard. There is incredible talent, but it is highly sought after by everybody.”
In fact, about a decade ago, Singapore was a key player in the microbiome research sector, he said, recounting how his co-founder Dr Ong had led the first series of faecal microbiota transplant on a patient infected with the Clostridium difficile (C. diff) bacteria at the local National University Hospital back in 2014.
“It was very clear that once upon a time Singapore was pioneering in this space but unfortunately, if we look at the number of clinical studies that are going on for research in the last decade, Singapore had sad to say, fallen back when compared to North America and Europe.
“As David and Jonathan shared with me the excitement of the microbiome, how important it is, we collectively decided that we had to do this, not for any other purpose than to drive the local and regional science and that's how I came into AMiLi and into the microbiome space.”
With the recent boom in microbiome research, the discipline is gaining more recognition and has earned its place in all three medical schools in Singapore, he said.
This also shows how important it is to present solutions to problems that people care about at the right time.
“If you are too early for the party, you have great science, innovation, but the market is not ready and then you run out cash and it's game over.”
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