The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) will hold its first ever Niche Center in the Regions (NICER) Summit on 3 December 2021 which puts a spotlight on regional centers established to address pressing problems on agriculture, infrastructure, and health, to name a few, in their communities and provinces. 

As one of the four components of the DOST’s Science for Change Program (S4CP), these regional research and development centers aim to accelerate capacity building and industrial competitiveness and regional development, shifting the country’s science and technology (S&T) mindset from being an exclusive, peer-centric field to a society-centric discipline where outputs are translated into social and economic impacts for the benefit of the people.

This shift for S&T is part of the country’s move to fulfill its commitment to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). For 2030, the UN has 17 SDGs, and the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) is tasked to fulfill the 13 targets under SDG 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone at all ages in the country. 

Research and development takes years before it could be translated to actual products, policies, and programs for the people, and the PCHRD has long been laying the foundations for health research in the country to ensure that the fruits of Filipino researchers will benefit their fellowmen. 

The country’s current research priorities specified under the National Unified Health Research Agenda (NUHRA) aim to (1) create responsive health systems, (2) support research to enhance and extend healthy lives, (3) promote holistic approaches to health and wellness, (4) promote health resiliency, (5) promote global competitiveness and innovation in health, and (6) support research in equity and health.

NICER for a Healthier Philippines

In order to find solutions to different health problems and promote good health and well-being, the NICER program was created to distribute R&D capacities in different parts of the country. 

In line with DOST’s goal to capacitate the regions and improve their science and technology infrastructure, the Council has started supporting the establishment of Niche Centers in the Regions for R&D or NICER, which primarily aims to provide Higher Education Institutions or HEIs with grants so that they can undertake quality research directed at promoting regional development,” Dr. Jaime Montoya, PCHRD Executive Director said during the NICER virtual presser held on 8 October, 2021.

Currently, the DOST through the PCHRD supports six NICERs for health in different parts of the country:

  1. Center for Innovations for Cost-Effective Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in Health at the University of the Philippine Manila, which focuses on creating action plans and programs for disaster response for healthcare professionals and first responders;
  2. Center for Applied Modeling, Data Analytics, and Bioinformatics For Decision-Support Systems in Health of the University of the Philippines Mindanao (UPMin) and Malayan Colleges Mindanao (MCM), which focuses on using interdisciplinary quantitative approaches to provide practical solutions and/or proactive interventions to prevent, mitigate, and build resilience against diseases, with Mindanao as the pilot model;
  3. Integrated Protein Research Development Center at the Ateneo de Manila University, which aims to develop low-cost diagnostic reagents with comparable functional performance to commercial kits and reagent components and support equipment for disease intervention;
  4. Biomaterials for Therapeutics and Diagnostics R&D Center at the Angeles University Foundation, which aims to develop biomaterials and nanomaterials for health applications;
  5. Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Health Technologies- Niche Center in the Region (DLSU- IBEHT-NICER): R&D Center for Medical Robotics at the De La Salle University Manila, which aims to be a center of expertise in medical robotics R&D , particularly in the development of robotic assistive & rehabilitation devices; robotic surgical devices & technologies and neurorobotic technology, ; and
  6. Center for Vector Diseases of Public Health Importance at the De La Salle University Laguna, which aims to be a center for the control of vectors of diseases of public importance.

As the program implies, these niche centers pinpoint endemic health problems or specialize in creating innovations that address wellness and health issues within their regions. “They are geared at different angles and this is precisely what we wanted to do when the DOST introduced the NICER program,” said DOST Secretary Fortunato de la Peña during the NICER presser’s open forum. “We would like to build an expanded capability, but it doesn’t have to rest in only one institution. We have to spread it geographically because our idea of inclusive development is having a wider participation also in S&T activities from the point of view of the researchers and from the point of view of addressing needs and opportunities in different parts of the country,” the DOST Secretary explained.

However, DOST Undersecretary for Research and Development, Dr. Rowena Cristina Guevara, stresses that these regional centers will not exclusively serve the community and the provinces where these centers are located, but will eventually become instrumental in bolstering the country’s capacity to provide better healthcare to every Filipino. “Ang primary concern nila would be to address the needs of the region, but then meron din tayong plano na eventually, itong mga NICERS natin, magiging national R&D centers. Ang ating hope is that once napakita na nila sa region nila na umaandar yung mga solutions, sana ikalat din natin sa ibang parte ng Pilipinas.” 

Get to Know Our NICERs Better

The very first NICER Summit, with the theme “Inclusive Innovation towards Attaining Sustainable Development Goals,” is a half-day event that provides a platform for scientists and researchers from the different NICER institutions in the country to share what they have already accomplished and what they already have in their pipelines to build the country’s capacities and industrial competitiveness and to promote regional development.

The DOST-PCHRD invites everyone to join the conference on 3 December 2021 and learn how the S4CP transformed science, technology, and innovation through these NICERs. 

Register here: bit.ly/NICER-Events-2021

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña presented the Philippines’ ongoing initiatives and the country’s collaborative efforts on liver health research to the Italian Liver Foundation (FIF) Scientific Committee during the 15th annual meeting on 18 November  2021. 

Sec. de la Peña was warmly welcomed by FIF President, Dr. Decio Ripandelli, FIF Scientific Committee President, Dr. Fransisco Baralle, and FIF Scientific Director, Dr. Claudio Tiribelli. 

The Global Liver Disease Problem

Liver disease continues to be a problem across the globe. Hepatitis, in particular, is a silent killer as many of its victims are asymptomatic. The disease has taken 1.4 million lives around the world every year in the last two decades, according to the World Health Organization. These deaths need not happen as most liver diseases like hepatitis B could be prevented through vaccination, and those who have the disease could be treated, yet not many are aware of this, especially in the Philippines.

One in 10 Filipinos have chronic Hepatitis B, and liver cancer remains one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the country.

To address this, the DOST, together with the University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) initiated the partnership with FIF.

Philippines at the forefront of Liver Research in SEA

The Philippines began its collaboration with FIF in 2019, when the country signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with FIF for capacity building and research and development (R&D). Specific to advancing liver research, the Philippines signed another MOU with FIF and the UPM in August 2021, making the UPM the lead agency in the conduct of R&D efforts. This tripartite partnership, according to Sec. de la Peña, enables shared learning, open funding opportunities, and liver disease research through the establishment of the Philippine Liver Network. 

The Liver Network, once institutionalized, will serve as a collaborative research hub on liver diseases. It will also provide an opportunity for local researchers to “lead, propose, conduct, and publish sustainable and stronger liver studies” by supporting various research projects on liver and liver diseases from conceptualization to utilization.

Three main objectives were set as the foundation upon which the network will be built. They are: (1) to develop and conduct comprehensive research programs on liver diseases, (2) to promote basic and translational research, and (3) to provide a platform for collaborative research.

The Philippines’ Liver Research Agenda is one of the first initiatives of the collaboration. With the help of partners in liver research, 10 priority areas were identified as follows: 1) prevalence, incidence, and risk factors of liver diseases; 2) access to treatment; 3) burdens of liver disease; 4) stigma caused by hepatitis B and its negative impact on healthcare utilization; 5) patient-reported outcomes for liver diseases; 6) non-invasive diagnosis for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis; 7) screening and surveillance programs for early diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma; 8) registry and tissue and serum repository for liver diseases, including transplantation cirrhosis; 9) effectiveness of treatment intervention programs in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; and 10) strategies to increase donor pool for liver transplants. 

After the establishment of the Agenda, two projects were supported under the collaboration and 19 research projects ranging from the study of pediatric liver diseases to public health and policy are already in the pipeline.

The Philippine Liver Network also aims to cultivate and nurture home-grown talents through partnerships with academic institutions like the Universities of Pisa and Trieste. These would allow Filipino scholars to study in Italy to expand their knowledge on liver diseases and liver disease research through degree, sandwich, and fellowship programs.

Other than the efforts mentioned during the presentation, Sec. de la Peña also highlighted DOST’s efforts towards the establishment of the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines, as well as the ASEAN DxD Initiative, which the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development co-chairs with Singapore’s Diagnostics Development Hub.  

The country’s efforts to combat liver disease were very much appreciated by the Scientific Committee. “I think that Filipino scientists are excellent examples of how they can really mix a positive approach to life and a positive approach to science,” Dr. Tiribelli said. “The Philippines actually paved the way to actual and effective interaction between two institutions to understand and to better treat liver disease in the Philippines. This is a unique example in South East Asia [sic].”

Dr. Ripandelli believes that what the Philippines has accomplished thus far in the span of two years would be “a beacon towards creating something at the regional level throughout South East Asia.” The president of the Italian Liver Foundation was certain that the example that the Philippines set will be followed by other countries in the region. 

The DOST-FIF’s Partnership 

Waxing romantic, Dr. Ripandelli called Italy’s collaboration with the Philippines through FIF and DOST a love story. The President of FIF commented that the liver health objectives and activities outlined by DOST coincide with the Italian Liver Foundation’s objectives. “We are lovers by definition, and we are looking forward [to] a very, very long love story in order to enhance what has already been done but [also] what we will be able to do in the future.”

Sec. de la Peña reaffirmed this by saying that the initiatives he presented are only the beginning and he is looking forward  to the developments and the impact of the partnership with FIF in the future. 

The 15th Annual Meeting of the Scientific Committee of the Italian Liver Foundation was held virtually through a Zoom meeting. The meeting was attended by scientists from FIF's network including Filipino DOST-PCHRD scholars in Italy. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified education and awareness campaign as fundamental strategies in the Global Action Plan to combat antimicrobial resistance (AMR). In relation to this, the World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW) is being observed and celebrated every third week of November worldwide to increase awareness of global antimicrobial resistance and encourage best practices among the general public, health workers and policy makers to avoid the further emergence and spread of drug-resistant infections.

The Tripartite Organizations, i.e., Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and WHO has designated the dates November 18-24 to be the week-long celebration of WAAW every year. The Philippines, as one of the forefront WHO member states actively fighting against AMR, has been participating in this global activity through the celebration of the Philippine Antimicrobial Awareness Week (PAAW) since 2015.

As in previous years, the overall one-health slogan for AMR awareness and WAAW is “Antimicrobials: Handle with Care.” Meanwhile, the global theme for WAAW 2021 is “Spread awareness, stop resistance.” This theme encourages stakeholders across all sectors to be AMR Awareness champions by engaging and actively participating in AMR campaign activities and spreading awareness on AMR to their families, communities, and/or places of work.

In the Philippines, as we celebrate the WAAW this year, we will be adopting the local theme, “Kaalaman ay Dagdagan, Antimicrobial Resistance sa Gitna ng COVID-19 Pandemya ay Labanan.” Antibiotic overuse in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic may potentially exacerbate the AMR situation in the country and may put stewardship efforts at risk. With this theme, we engage stakeholders across all relevant sectors to raise awareness on AMR and to increase recognition of the important roles that they play to encourage behavior change towards the prudent and rational use of antimicrobials in order to mitigate the unintended long-term consequences associated with antibiotic overuse during the pandemic and to avoid future pandemic of AMR.

For more information on this year’s campaign, visit: www.facebook.com/doh.paaw.

With your continuous support and cooperation, this campaign will further promote public awareness on AMR and the important role that each of us have to play and contribute in tackling AMR and combatting it through one health approach.

 



High heels.
Coiffed hair.
Pencil skirts.

 A lady like this once walked the halls of the Department of Science and Technology. Because of her ensemble, few would think that she worked there as a scientist, but once they knew who she was, it would not be as surprising.

With poise and grace handed down by her mother, 1933 Miss Philippines Engracia Arcinas Laconico, and a gift of foresight from her father, National Scientist, Dr. Gregorio Ynciong Zara, Dr. Pacita Zara proved that a lady could take huge strides towards the future and make a difference through science.

Future Forward

In 1990, Dr. Pacita Zara became PCHRD’s Executive Director, but she already served the Department of Science and Technology for 27 years, back when it was still the National Science Development Board in 1963. Dr. Zara was often seen as aloof and is known to be quite meticulous, but Ms. Fabie Concepcion, her secretary of 20 years, assured that she was kind and approachable.

She first served the Philippine Council of Health Research and Development as its Deputy Director in 1982, immediately upon its inception. Her instatement led to partnerships with the Department of Health and the University of the Philippines Manila and the eventual establishment of the Health Research and Development Information Network, or HERDIN, in 1986.

When HERDIN was launched with the creation of the Medical and Health Library Association of the Philippines in 1988, it was one of the few health information repositories that used the internet in the country at that time, but it was able to attract not only local subscribers but also the World Health Organization and research institutions from other countries.

During the early stages of PCHRD, herbal medicines like Lagundi and Sambong were already tried and tested for mass distribution and utilization, and by the time she stepped up as PCHRD’s Executive Director, she moved towards commercializing and globalizing them.

Ascof™ Lagundi by Pascual Laboratories, now a household name for asthma and cough relief, is one of PCHRD’s success stories under Dr. Zara’s leadership. Her continued support for herbal drug research and development and commercialization eventually led to foreign interest in the adoption and distribution of Lagundi.

But who would have thought that this advocacy in Philippine herbal medicines would eventually help the country in its fight against a global health crisis? Even after her retirement, her influence is still felt as the standard formulations for Lagundi now widely available in the market have been found to be effective against mild symptoms of COVID-19.

The Philippine Genome Center, which is now instrumental in identifying COVID-19 variants present in the country, was also one of the many offshoots of her foresight. At the cusp of her retirement in 2001, the dawn of the new millennium, PCHRD began looking at genomics as a potential solution for our nation’s health problems. Robotics and ICTs for health were also solutions that PCHRD started exploring towards the end of her term.

Philippines, Inc.

Philippines, Inc. was Dr. Zara’s moniker for her vision: that all sectors of Philippine society, PCHRD included, will band together to improve every Filipino’s quality of life. This vision enabled cooperation between the commercial and health S&T sectors, industries that once were distant from each other. It also opened our country to more possibilities and solutions by embracing globalization.

Dr. Zara was still able to see her visions become reality before her passing on November 6. She witnessed the evolution of the initiatives and solutions she helped build. She saw the enactment of RA 10532, or the law that institutionalized the Philippine National Health Research System and recognized HERDIN as the country’s official health research repository, more than three decades after it was created. She was even able to see her father’s invention, the two-way video telephone, come to life and evolve into more sophisticated technologies and applications that Filipinos and people from all over the world are now using to connect with each other.

One would say that her life was one well-lived, one that was dedicated to improving the lives of her fellowmen. But celebrating Dr. Pacita Zara not only acknowledges her achievements but gives young Filipino women an image to emulate, and hopefully encourage more ladies to take up careers in science and make a difference for their country.

 


Results of the clinical trials for Lagundi were presented during the Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Council for Health Research and Development’s (DOST-PCHRD) Talakayang HeaRT Beat virtual presser on 26 October 2021.

 

The study conducted by Dr. Cecilia Maramba-Lazarte and her team at the University of the Philippines, Manila – National Institutes of Health (UPM – NIH) revealed that 600mg of the over-the-counter Lagundi products, already approved by the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) as herbal medicine for cough, taken three times a day by patients in home quarantine can be safely used to treat mild COVID-19 symptoms.


At the time of the clinical trials, there were only a few drugs, such as remdesivir (3), barticinib, and tocilizumab (4) given emergency use permits to use in patients who have severe to critical symptoms of COVID-19. With the heavy demand of these drugs, supply shortage is inevitable. This could be prevented through early treatment.


The clinical trials were conducted to investigate the efficacy and safety of the National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plant (NIRPROMP) formulation of Lagundi as early treatment for those with mild COVID-19 infection. By treating symptoms at the onset, hospitalizations could be averted and further spread could be prevented by limiting the duration of infectiousness.


The two-stage, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted from July 2020 to August 2021. All participants of the study were patients without comorbidities.


The first stage of the trial aimed to find the right dosage of the standard formulation to be administered. Seventy-five adults who tested positive for COVID-19 after rtPCR tests were enrolled for the first phase of the study. Patients were grouped and were either given the standard dose (600mg, three times a day) or high dose (1.2g, three times a day) Lagundi syrup or tablet for 10 days. 


The standard dose was chosen for use during the second phase as findings on the first phase of the study revealed that both dosages are safe and effective in terms of clinical recovery time, global evaluation scale, and modified early warning score.


The second stage aimed to confirm the safety and efficacy of the dosage through the placebo-controlled study. Two hundred COVID-19 positive adults were enrolled for the second phase of the study and were grouped into those who received Lagundi treatment (101 patients) and those who received the placebo (99). 


Results of the second phase of the study found that Lagundi is effective in decreasing mild COVID-19 symptoms especially anosmia (loss of sense of smell) and providing overall relief of discomfort from other symptoms. There is also no significant adverse event and incidence observed during intervention.

The Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) has already included Lagundi as one of the items in its homecare kit for mild COVID-19 symptoms.