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How the Philippine Genome Center became a lifesaver during COVID-19

By Dr. Carmencita Padilla Published Jul 29, 2022 5:03 am


The past two years have shown the importance of understanding COVID-19 variants identified by genomic technology. We’ve learned to appreciate the value of the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) in tracking COVID-19 variants that were introduced through returning Filipino residents or tourists visiting our country.

What if we did not have a genome center? How could we have coped with the COVID-19 pandemic? There are lessons to be gleaned from the story of the PGC.

The importance of genome centers — and medical research as a whole — was highlighted during the pandemic.

In 2008, the Institute of Human Genetics, a component unit of the National Institutes of Health - University of the Philippines Manila, hosted the Human Genome Organization Conference in the Asia Pacific. UP president Emerlinda Roman, who attended the event and recognized the value of a genome center, created a committee to explore its establishment in UP. The core committee was led by then UP vice president for academic affairs Amelia Guevara and assisted by three UP faculty members — Gisela Concepcion of the Marine Science Institute, UP Diliman; Cynthia Saloma of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, UP Diliman; and this author, from the UP College of Medicine, UP Manila.

In 2009, our group visited several genome centers in the region (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore) and the United States to obtain insights toward the development of a Philippine version. UP was hoping that a scientist would return to head the genome center, but that did not happen. What was clear in the visits was that genomic tools were shared by health, agriculture, biodiversity, forensics and ethnicity.

The PGC was approved by the UP Board of Regents in July 2009 as a multidisciplinary institution that would combine basic and applied research for the development of health diagnostics, therapeutics, DNA forensics and preventive products, and improved crop varieties in the country. Two core facilities were also set up — the DNA Sequencing Core Facility and the Bioinformatics Facility. At the time, other developed countries were already using genomics to identify markers for better varieties of crops (sugarcane, coconut, etc.) leading to their higher yield. Likewise, the treatment of medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, asthma, hypertension and many more depend on population-specific biomarkers for a better choice of drugs.

In the past 10 years, the Philippines has been slowly moving toward this direction. But too slow.

Our COVID-19 story underlined the role of science in informed decision-making.

Setting up the PGC had its own challenges, particularly funding as acquiring the technology was expensive. At the outset, various sectors expressed deep concern about the budget since it was thought it would be cheaper to send samples to China and Korea. Why spend? Our nagging response was: time will come when the borders will close and the Philippines will need its own genome center.

The Quezon City General Hospital's chapel was converted into an intensive care unit in September 2021.

COVID-19 proved us right. We just did not expect this crisis to happen in our lifetime.

The PGC received grants from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED). UP System provided the building for the equipment.

Health workers attend to patients at the Mandaluyong City Medical Center.

The importance of local genome centers having been highlighted by our experience with a global pandemic, two more PGCs were recently set up — one in UP Visayas and one in UP Mindanao.

What if UP did not set up the PGC in 2009? What if the government did not provide funding? Can you imagine the panic and desperation we would have had, with international borders closed and no means for us to send samples overseas?

Medical research must be given serious attention by the government. Future planning is crucial for the nation’s health and well-being. And, at all times, government and academe need to work together to ensure better health care for our people.

Our COVID-19 story underlined the role of science in informed decision-making. And now, more than ever, laypeople understand the importance of applying genomics in the diagnosis of diseases.

With COVID-19 slowly easing up, what will happen to the PGC and all the molecular laboratories set up throughout the country? It is time to use these laboratories for other applications.

Medical breakthroughs and advancements can be fasttracked with the proper support and funding from the government.

Health-wise, let us use genomic technology for the better diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. It is time for precision medicine, sometimes called personalized medicine, which targets “the right treatment, the right dose, to the right patient at the right time.” Did you ever wonder why medicine works for some and not for others? Science has taught us that treatment is no longer a one-size-fits-all-approach.

For this to happen, medical research must be given serious attention by the government. The government must provide funding for research into Filipino-specific markers. In the long run, this will help in buying the right medicine for distribution to the different government hospitals and health centers in the country. The government must also provide free genomic testing, even for the more common diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension and tuberculosis. We can start with just the top 10 causes of morbidity and mortality in the country.

Are we giving the right medicine? With genome research, we can have new diagnostic tools to help our patients.

As the PGC story shows, “future planning” is crucial for the nation’s health and well-being. And, at all times, government and academe need to work together to ensure better health care for our people.