NUS Mechanobiology Institute receives S$49m boost to develop biomedical innovations for age-related conditions such as infertility, muscle loss and cancer

New research investment strengthens Singapore’s position as a leading hub for research and innovation in biomedicine to improve human health

The Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has recently secured S$49 million in funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF) to promote research aimed at advancing the field of mechanobiology and turning scientific breakthroughs into action by developing novel technologies and therapeutic targets for the treatment of age-related ailments such as infertility, chronical inflammatory diseases, muscle atrophy and cancer. The research funding will be provided over seven years, from December 2023.

Mechanobiology employs theories and techniques from various fields to facilitate the study of how physical and mechanical processes in biology could have an influence on organismal development, physiology and disease development. Discoveries in this field can have a profound impact on understanding various aspects of human health, as well as developing more effective diagnostics and therapies for diseases.

For example, during the development of gametes (eggs and sperms), mechanical signals, such as compression, stiffness and shear force, help to direct the growth and differentiation of gamete cells with high reproductive potential. Mechanobiology research on the development and ageing of these cells could lead to the discovery of new approaches to treat infertility.

Advancements in mechanobiology could also help to address age-related loss of biomechanical functions such as that associated with muscle atrophy, which occurs during ageing. During exercise, muscle cells experience and generate forces, which promote muscle growth. Understanding how cells sense and respond to changes in mechanical forces could inspire novel approaches to prevent muscle loss in older persons.

Since its establishment in 2009 with the support of NRF, Ministry of Education and NUS, MBI has made significant strides in revealing the role of mechanical signals in the development of tissues and organisms. Building on this foundation, MBI is now exploring the complexities of cellular and tissue ageing, as well as the potential for biomedical and bioengineering solutions to combat the effects of time on the human body.

The latest NRF funding will enable MBI to make fundamental discoveries and develop novel health innovations, enhancing Singapore’s global standing as a hub of advanced biomedical research. The investment will also help attract world-class talent and investment in deep tech, aligning with Singapore’s strategic push in the biotech sector to drive improved healthcare outcomes and fuel economic growth.

MBI Director Professor Rong Li said, “Singapore, like many developed countries, is a fast-ageing society. By leveraging new knowledge generated over the course of this grant, we will develop biomedical innovations and interventions aimed at improving healthy longevity in the Singaporean population. We believe this will spur innovation and enterprise in the local biotech industry, which is fully in line with the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan on human health and potential.”

NUS Deputy President (Research and Technology) Professor Liu Bin said, “This new research grant from NRF reflects a significant vote of confidence in NUS’ research capabilities in biomedical sciences. MBI has established a strong reputation as a world leader in the field of mechanobiology. I am excited to see MBI raising the bar for research excellence and working closely with its research, clinical and industry partners to push the boundaries of innovation and importantly, to accelerate the translation of novel discoveries into diagnostics and therapies that will benefit patients in Singapore and beyond.” 

From pioneering research to groundbreaking solutions

MBI’s research framework is streamlined into three thrusts to maximise impact.

Under Thrust 1, MBI researchers are studying how cells and tissues sense and adapt to mechanical forces — critical for treating age-related disorders and injuries. One of the key projects involves developing new imaging technologies to observe in detail how the cell interacts with its surroundings and other cells. Importantly, small changes at a nanoscopic scale in these surroundings can have profound impact on cell behaviour and response to therapeutic drugs. 

Thrust 2 explores how mechanical forces shape the development and maintenance of multicellular tissues by studying how cells interact and organise themselves. For example, MBI researchers are devising methods to cultivate and analyse ovarian follicles, cocoon-like structures in the ovary that support the growth and development of eggs. This could have profound implications for fertility treatments and the understanding of ovarian diseases.

Thrust 3 delves into the potential of mechanomedicine, characterised by the practical application of mechanical principles to diagnose and treat diseases. In one of the projects under this research thrust, MBI researchers are developing next-generation diagnostic assays that can detect disease biomarkers with supreme sensitivity and specificity, streamlining the diagnostic process for cancer and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Please refer to the Annexe for more information on these research thrusts.

Expanding research networks, boosting commercialisation

To facilitate these thrusts, MBI is building a broad coalition of basic scientists, engineers and clinical researchers in Singapore, and tapping into the international mechanobiology network. MBI will also serve as a training hub for aspiring young scientists poised to tackle complex challenges in biology and medicine in the future.

MBI’s facilities include a dedicated 2,200 sqm laboratory space equipped with state-of-the-art technologies for bioimaging, microfabrication, and high-throughput genetics, supported by a team of core technical staff. The institute’s infrastructure is designed to maximise collaborative, interdisciplinary research with its clinical partners, such as the National University Health System, and academic research partners including Nanyang Technological University and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

MBI’s partnerships with industry leaders exemplify its efforts to translate research into real-world applications. Collaborating with Nuevocor, a Singapore-based preclinical-stage biopharmaceutical startup, MBI will identify new gene therapy targets for cardiovascular diseases such as familial dilated cardiomyopathy, one of the most common causes of heart failure. MBI also has an ongoing industrial partnership with ReStem Biotech, which is based in Hong Kong and China, to develop cell-based therapies for infertility.

Beyond generating intellectual property, MBI proactively nurtures startup companies to bring laboratory breakthroughs to the marketplace. Some of MBI’s spin-off companies include Clearbridge BioMedics, PickCell, and Prime Growth.

MBI is also partnering with NUS Enterprise – the University’s entrepreneurial arm – as well as local venture firm Paeonia Group, both with experience in commercialisation of cutting-edge technologies developed in universities and research institutes.

Poised to impact human health and diseases

Over the next seven years, the NRF funding will also support MBI’s education and talent development efforts. MBI aims to train about 20 PhD students in interdisciplinary science through its dedicated MBI Graduate Programme and plans to institute a novel post-doctoral fellow training programme to identify and develop talented scientists to conduct basic and translational research across all three research thrusts.

The goals for technology transfer include identifying mechanomedicine targets, developing new technology platforms, creating diagnostic assay prototypes, filing patents for promising technologies, and building a vibrant ecosystem for discovery, innovation and commercialisation.