The life sciences initiative in Singapore began in 2000 when it was identified as the fourth pillar of Singapore’s economy. The focus has been on healthcare biomedical research with the government announcing last year that it would continue to pump over S$1.2 billion into efforts to boost research into cancer and natural disasters. In addition to the liberal government financing and huge amount of funds available to researchers, Singapore is beginning to become a hotbed for stem cell research, thanks to its liberal laws in this field.

Human stem cell research and obtaining patents for human stem cells have always been controversial. While there are no specific provisions in the Singapore Patents Act that bar stem cells from patentability, Section 13(2) of the Singapore Patents Act states that an invention, the publication or exploitation of which would be generally expected to encourage offensive, immoral or anti-social behaviour, is not a patentable invention. Unfortunately, there is no guidance from the Singapore Registry of Patents on how Section 13(2) may influence the patentability of stem cells.

Singapore patents have been granted for claims directed to stem cells. In particular, patents have been granted for purified preparations of embryonic stem cells, which would arguably include human embryonic stem cells. Having said that, Singapore courts have not had the opportunity to rule on whether such patents would be considered immoral and, as such, not considered a patentable invention in Singapore.

The Bioethics Advisory Committee that was formed to examine the ethical, legal and social issues arising from biomedical research recommends that human stem cell research be permitted under strict regulation. Assuming Singapore maintains this policy position, it would appear that inventions relating to human stem cells may not be considered contrary to morality and a Singapore court would probably uphold patents for human stem cells assuming they satisfy the normal requirements for patentability. However, it remains to be seen whether this would extend to human embryonic stem cells.