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DOST invests P377 M in biodiverse drug research

MANILA, Philippines -  The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is investing P377 million this year for research and development aimed at crafting new drugs based on bio-materials culled from the Philippines’ biodiversity.

Science Secretary Fortunato dela Peña urged local researchers and scientists to tap the huge fund to pursue R&D on the vast flora and fauna resources of the country to produce the next major drug breakthrough.

“We want to encourage our local researchers and scientists to go into new drug discovery and development R&D and we want to reassure them that we can support them with research grants,” Dela Peña said in an interview at the recent National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) Regional Scientific Meeting in Cebu City.

The DOST’s Philippine Council for Health R&D (PCHRD) has an allocation of P253.1 million for grants-in-aid for drug discovery R&D,  and P125 million more allocated for  “bio-banking” activities, PCHRD executive director Jaime Montoya said.

Dela Peña said that encouraging R&D on new drug discovery expanded opportunities for growth, which can be achieved through development of new knowledge, technologies and products.

“We’re  now trying to identify new research centers in the regions which have very special capabilities and we will strengthen them by way of giving them the opportunity to participate in research through grants,” he said, noting this would encourage bigger programs led by research centers as well as the manpower buildup.

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The DOST chief noted that the department’s Tuklas Lunas program had expanded the number of state universities and colleges and higher education institutions that can undertake R&D studies for drug discovery and development.

“Whereas before we only had UP Manila – the UP College of Medicine – doing this, now, since we’re working on a big number of species, we have involved at least 10 universities,” Dela Peña said.

He said the universities do screening, verification and standardization work, as well as clinical trials that involve research centers in the regions.

The DOST had provided major funding for successful R&D conducted by UP Manila to develop the lagundi cough syrup and capsules now being manufactured on license by two big Filipino drug companies.

A recent awardee of the DOST-National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP), Joven Apostol said that Philippine biodiversity offers huge potential for breakthrough discovery and development of new medicines with adequate investments in R&D efforts.

Apostol, a pharmacy professor at the University of Santo Tomas and recent awardee of the 2017 Outstanding Filipino Researcher Award of NRCP, said that the absence of foreign pharmaceutical companies in the Philippines in recent years could be a blessing. 

“There are endemic plants, insects, marine organisms, minerals that could be a source of pharmacologic interventions in diseases,” said Apostol. 

He said this has spurred Filipinos to become more entrepreneurial, leading to more drug research  and development in academic and research institutes and local manufacturers focusing on endemic biomaterials.

“This is also partly due to the encouragement and support of the science and technology agencies of the government and other funding agencies,” Apostol said. 

Apostol pointed out that basic research is crucial in drug development.

“A pharmaceutical product is only as good as it is safe and effective,” Apostol said.

“A drug molecule will not advance to formulation and manufacturing without the preliminary data on its safety, effect, mechanism of action, toxicity and others – basic information on drug source, synthesis, kinetics and interactions, which can only be provided by basic research,” he further explained. 

Research in basic pharmacology includes screening of these bio-materials for their effects on the physical and chemical processes of the living organism and on the nature and courses of diseases. Various methods of testing are employed, such as in vitro, in vivo and in silico. 

The results of these basic researches serve as basis to support further studies leading to formulation and clinical use of the drug product. 

Gains in the growth of the pharmaceutical sector can be sustained by continuous support for both basic and applied research, thus lessening reliance on foreign manufactured drugs. 

Apostol is optimistic that given the right support, structure, and cooperation among scientists, industry and government, it is possible that in five to 10 years, the country would be well on its way to discovering new drugs. The drug being developed should be in the clinical trial phase and the company engaged in the development should have spent half a billion dollars, he said. 

NRCP is the country’s lead agency in basic research. It is mandated to promote and support basic and problem-oriented researches, particularly those which are multidisciplinary, in the sciences as well as in the humanities.

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