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Research Saves Lives
Christine F. Liwanag
Philippine Daily Inquirer



MANILA, Philippines-In her best-selling book "Simple Abundance," Sarah Ban Breathnach (pronounced BRANNOCK) writes, "Did you know that plants need to be repotted at least every two years? Even if the roots don't need more room to grow in the pot, the old soil should be replaced because all the nutrients have been consumed. The interior of the pot is a wasteland."

I see a parallel between Breathnach's repotting metaphor and Dr. Filipinas Florendo-Natividad's unceasing pursuit of knowledge to improve patient care through the advancement of biomedical research. Both show the value of constant renewal and growth in improving and saving lives.

4 new research centers
In a recent lunch meeting with the indefatigable vice president for Research and Biotechnology of St. Luke's Medical Center, the great respect I have for this dedicated scientist intensified even further. PI-pronounced the same way as the acronym for Philippine Islands-brimmed with excitement as she told me about the launch of four new research centers to coincide with the 13th anniversary celebration on July 21-25 of the St. Luke's Research and Biotechnology Division (RBD).

The theme for this year's anniversary celebration, "RBD at 13: A Metamorphosis," is truly apt. Under PI's dynamic leadership, the RBD through the years has continuously evolved to be able to fulfill its mission of advancing medical science by bridging the gap between research and clinical practice. The RBD is the first private hospital-based modern facility in the Philippines dedicated to biomedical research. Thanks to solid management support and close partnership between scientists and physicians, the RBD has fostered a culture of research that has helped St. Luke's provide high-quality patient care.

Here are a few highlights of what the RBD has achieved so far.

In 2006, a team of St. Luke's eye surgeons headed by Dr. Jessica Abaño, performed the country's first successful conjunctival stem cell transplant. (The conjunctiva is the thin outer coating of the whites of the eye.) The patient was a 52-year-old man whose left eye had been blinded by severe chemical burns and could not be effectively treated with conventional surgery or therapies.

Ophthalmologists harvested stem cells from the patient's healthy eye, which RBD scientists cultivated in the laboratory. The stem cells grew and eventually became replacement tissues that were surgically transplanted on the patient's damaged eye, thereby restoring his vision. Since then, this interdisciplinary approach has led to the successful treatment of five other patients with eye surface injury.

The RBD has received many awards for research excellence on various diseases, but the most prestigious to date is the 2002 Outstanding Health Research Award from the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD). It merited the award for establishing the country's first and only Dengue Serum Bank which currently houses more than 10,000 serum samples and for developing a dengue serological detection kit.

Another RBD milestone is its pioneering effort to offer to the Filipino public a wide range of molecular diagnostic tests that previously were only available in developed countries. The RBD Molecular Diagnostics Department performs chromosomal analyses for various diseases including a complete molecular diagnostic package for leukemia. RBD has also developed DNA-based tests for monitoring disease gene markers, detecting and genotyping pathogens, as well as chemical analyses for metabolic diseases, heavy metal poisoning, and drug analysis.

The launch of the four new RBD centers-the Center for Stem Cell Research, National Human Genome Center (Philippines), Center for Clinical Trials, and Center for Drug Discovery and Development-will enhance St. Luke's research capabilities, says PI, who was recently honored by the DOST as one of the country's 50 Men and Women of Science.

She reveals that the RBD has started to look at the DNA of patients enrolled in the St. Luke's Cardiovascular Disease Information System (CVDIS), a brainchild of cardiologist Dr. Enrique Posas. This pioneering local initiative aims to correlate gene variations with susceptibility to heart disease, the leading cause of mortality in the Philippines. Other genomics initiatives include identifying genetic markers for diabetes, various cancers, and unique Filipino diseases such as lubag and bangungot.

Passion for excellence
PI praises St. Luke's President and CEO Jose G. Ledesma's passion for excellence and trailblazing initiatives to offer the best possible care to patients. "To constantly elevate the quality of patient care at St. Luke's, Mr. Ledesma provides the hospital's doctors and scientists with opportunities and an optimal environment to learn and grow."

With the full support of the St. Luke's administration and notwithstanding funding hurdles that perennially plague research initiatives in the country, PI is determined to continue her quest for medical knowledge because, as she puts it, "patients will benefit so much from research."

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