By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

FILIPINO-MADE biotechnology products show the potential of local research and design despite gaps in innovation policy, according to stakeholders.

“We need to enforce existing laws and place them in a one-stop shop mechanism for tech developers to access, to improve and streamline the licensing process and turn-around time for these breakthrough products,” said Dr. Raul V. Destura, Manila HealthTek, Inc. (MTek) president and chief executive officer, at a Nov. 24 webinar on advancing technology transfer in biotech.

Organized by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DoST-PCHRD) as part of National Biotechnology Week, the talk showcased biotech research that aims to increase the country’s healthcare capacity.

GenAmplify, a locally manufactured PCR test kit for COVID-19 detection developed in 2020 by MTek, reduced testing turnaround time to 1.5 hours from five to six hours while retaining accuracy.

At P380 per kit, GenAmplify costs less than foreign brands that range from P410 to P830, said Joy Ann P. Santos, MTek’s senior vice-president for research and biotechnology.

“We wanted the rollout to reach many. About 1,301 GenAmplify kits were distributed in hospitals across the country, certified by the Department of Health (DoH),” she said.

With MTek’s technologies funded by government agencies like the DoST and DoH and supported by institutions like the University of the Philippines (UP), there is an opportunity to increase public trust in locally made health products, said Ms. Santos, who stressed the importance of sustainable local production and better regulatory mechanisms.

Meanwhile, a paper-based diagnostic kit for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) drug resistance developed by UP Manila is in the validation stage.

Dr. Rossana A. Ditangco, HIV research program lead at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, pointed out that these tests are critical to improve HIV response.

“About 42 Filipinos are being diagnosed with HIV infection every day this year,” she said, citing data from the DoH epidemiology bureau’s HIV registry. “More than 30% of cases are being reported among adolescents and young adults.”

Given limited access to holistic treatment, biotech can help with the global “95-95-95 target” (95% of people with HIV knowing their status, 95% of the HIV-positive starting treatment, and 95% of those on treatment reaching viral suppression) by 2030.

Another part of HIV research in the Philippines deals with its dynamics in patients, done through disease modeling. 

“We hypothesized that it would be interesting to find out what specific genes make them susceptible to certain complications. People don’t die of HIV. They die of complications,” said Dr. Ahmad Reza F. Mazahery, UP Diliman biology professor and head of the Philippine Program for Diagnostics Biomarkers, Disease Modeling, and Nutraceutical Product Development (PhilDIAMOND), at a separate webinar on overcoming HIV through biotech.

By constructing a disease model from tissues derived from a patient, PhilDIAMOND scientists study how biomarkers of interest lead to various ailments, explained Dr. Mazahery.

Aside from paving the way for personalized medicine, the data will also address the issue of HIV patients skipping or stopping treatment due to side effects, he added.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s 2022 Strategic Investment Priority Plan includes biotech-enabled activities, allowing biotech firms to avail of tax incentives and perks under the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) Act.

On the challenges of development, Dr. Mazahery said: “We listed many — red tape mazes, procurement, implementation. Importing equipment required 30 documents, some which I couldn’t produce because I’m not a clinician and it was for research use.”

MTek’s Dr. Destura noted that the legislative and administrative aspects of biotech innovation can be difficult. It took eight years for his company to develop the Biotek-M Dengue Aqua Kit, from ideation to sales and distribution.

The award-winning product focuses on the viremic period — or the time an infected person is asymptomatic but can transfer the virus — and promotes early detection tech as a lifesaving tool.

Commercially used as a diagnostic test in labs and hospitals, the kit was also an exercise in patience for MTek.

“We don’t feel bad about our difficult experiences as innovators. We just absorb them as lessons. But I wonder how many of the others will stay on the path and not give up. It’s my fervent desire that someday it will be easier for our successors,” said Dr. Destura.