Dr. Raul Destura reports that they are in final phase of validating the GenAmplify COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit. It will be ready for commercial use in about 2 weeks. Photograph by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

Meet the Filipino scientist who invented the low-cost COVID-19 testing kits

Amid our panic and terror brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Raul Destura and his team of UP scientists are giving the Filipinos and the rest of world a reason to hope.
Rhia Diomampo-Grana | Mar 14 2020

As soon as news on the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 broke, microbiology and biotechnology expert Dr. Raul Destura knew he was confronted with a tough but important mission for his fellow Filipinos.

“He already knew that this day will happen,” UP Manila Chancellor Dr. Carmencita Padilla reveals at the media briefing on UP’s reponse to COVID-19 held at the Philippine Genome Center in UP Diliman. As early as February, Padilla was taking note of the rising number of COVID-19 cases around the world. “So when UP was summoned at the Senate and was asked what the UP-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) and UP Manila-National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) can do, our executive director Dr. Eva Maria C. Cutiongco-dela Paz and our scientist Dr. Raul Destura already informed the Senate that we shall ready the testing kit.”

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The SARS-CoV-2 PCR detection kit was developed through the funding from the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD). It took over two weeks of sleepless nights for Dr. Destura and his team of 15 UP scientists to develop it.

As the Deputy Executive Director of the Philippine Genome Center, Destura likens himself to being the conductor of a symphony. “Kailangan meron kang idea, meron kang experimental design. Bawat proseso, may team of scientists. This is the part you will do, this is the part he will do. And then we convene—umaga tanghali, gabi, madaling-araw—kasi we lack time!” he says. 

Like any scientific study, Dr. Destura says the whole process of developing the kit was very tedious. One simple test clearly was not enough; they had to keep repeating every step of the way, 40 to 60 times, to prove the technology’s sensitivity and specificity. Dr. Destura’s role to the team is to validate their findings, challenge the results, and “give solutions when they’re hitting a wall.”

In the process of developing the kit, putting the acid together was the biggest challenge. “Yung nanduon na lahat ng components. Titimplahin mo kasi lahat ng conditions isa-isa. Aside from that, gagawan mo ngayon ng perturbations yung mga conditions mo. Maapektuhan ba sya pag tumaas ito? Maaapektuhan ba sya pag binawasan mo nito? Lahat yun kailangan mong gawin. Nakakaubos sya ng buhok,” says the doctor, eliciting some laughter from the audience. In the media briefing, Dr. Destura seems to be a mild mannered man, has a cheerful disposition, is well-loved by those around him, and yes, there’s not very much hair on that head anymore. 

The GenAmplify COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit will help in the early detection and effective treatment of COVID-19.

Filipino technology

At the same media briefing attended by scientists, academicians, and health experts from UP, PGC, DOST, and UP-PGH, Dr. Destura presented the result of his and his team’s hard work: the GenAmplify COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit, which will help in the early detection and effective treatment of COVID-19. 

The testing can be done in two ways—via nasopharyngeal brush and throat swab, wherein samples are taken from inside the nose and from the back of the throat. The specimen is placed in a sealed container and sent to the laboratory where it will be examined by the medical technologist.

Dr. Destura explains that like the existing COVID-19 kits, the GenAmplify COVID-19 rRT-PCR Detection Kit uses the same PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology. But unlike the others that require the test to be done thrice (for a total of about six hours), this version employs a single step multiple detection system, which has a turnaround time of 1 to 2 hours. “Pag tech developer ka, iisipin mo ang sitwasyon ng lugar na mag-aadopt ng tech—kulang sa tao, kapos sa oras,” says the doctor, describing our local healthcare system under the challenge of the COVID-19 outbreak. “Yung ibang platform, kailangan mong gawin yung test ng tatlong beses. Ito, ginawa nating isang beses.”

Known for developing low-cost, low-technology driven diagnostic platforms for the control of infectious diseases in the Philippines, Destura made the local GenAmplify as affordable as he can: it will cost only around P1,320 per test, in contrast to the foreign kit which costs around P8,500 per test.

Around 200 GenAmplify kits can be produced in a week, and enough kits are in stock now for around 6,000 tests, with more orders for around 20,000 tests already expected. These are being manufactured and stockpiled by the Manila HealthTek Inc. (MTek Inc.), a private Research & Development company with a robust diagnostic technology pipeline.

But the scientist is asking for a little more patience until they have completed the standard protocols needed in developing the technology. “Hindi puwedeng bara-bara, hindi pwedeng shortcut. Our intention is to protect the public by developing technology. Ano ba ang mga criteria na kailangang sundin? Una, sensitivity at specificity—lahat yan kailangan paulit-ulit mong gagawin,” he stresses.

The Food and Drug Administration has already greenlighted the field validation testing for the kit, which will be done on selected centers representing Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. He says it will probably take about 2 to 3 weeks to complete the needed sample size to calculate the diagnostic clinical sensibility. “Ito na yung final phase para maging commercialized version na sya,” he says.

The scientist is happy to note that many clinician-infectious disease specialists have volunteered to become side validators of the technology, which will help monitor its behavior in the field. Meanwhile, the genome sequencing technology, which is done at the PGC, can verify the findings of the test. “Pag nakumpleto natin ang data na yan, masasabi nating dumaan ito sa proseso na tinatanggap ng buong mundo,” he notes. “I know we need the testing kit very badly, but we have the moral responsibility to make sure that the technology we’re putting out there is of excellent quality. Pag gawa ng Pinoy, para sa lahat, para sa buong mundo ang kalidad. Kailangan lang natin ng kaunti pang pasensya para lang matapos itong validation. At the end of the day, our main intention is public safety and service to the community.”

According to Dr. Destura, the UP scientists are also currently developing the technology for leptospirosis, schistosomiasis, salmonella, African swine fever, chikungunya, and the Zika virus testing.

More inventions underway

The COVID-19 testing kit is only one in Dr. Destura’s long list of inventions. One of his pioneering works, the “Lab in a Mug” Project, a portable multi-infectious disease device about the size of a mug, generated its first ever spin-off company for the University of the Philippines, the MTek Inc. This technology is being rolled out to 100 primary and secondary hospitals all over the country and was given recognition in the inter-academy medical panel during the World Health Summit in Berlin as Top 20 Young Physician Leader. 

Currently, the UP scientists are also developing the technology for leptospirosis, schistosomiasis, and salmonella testing, which hopefully will be finished by end of the year. They are finishing the African swine fever test for veterinary medicine. Also in the pipeline are the tests for chikungunya and the Zika virus, which will likely be completed next year.

Dr. Destura is aware of the importance of his profession, helping to nurture young, innovative, and hardworking scientists. “For me, a good mentor inspires and steers his team to the right direction. Nothing beats a very inspired team. The best part of being the leader is you get to see young minds unfold right in front of you. I believe in my team, kasi kung hindi ako naniniwala sa kanila, bakit pa kami nagki-create ng ganito,” he quips.

Asked if our local scientists are bound to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, he says he’s leaving it to the European teams and that he’s praying for their success. “Hopefully in the future, the Philippines will also have its own vaccine development capacity. The investment for that is humongous—in the billions of dollars. We rely on rich countries to develop those vaccines. But I’m still hoping and praying that someday, we’ll get there,” he says with optimism.

 

*****

The UP Medical Foundation, Inc. and Towns Foundation, Inc. are appealing for help for our healthcare workers who are working round the clock to save lives and prevent more contagion. 

As they work tirelessly to care for patients who have flocked to private and public health facilities, it has become painfully clear that there is an urgent need to augment the gaping lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our healthcare heroes. 

Dr. Nina Berba, Infectious Disease expert, puts a conservative estimate of up to more than Php6.5M a month for a big hospital like PGH. And there is no telling how long this situation would last. The Public Health system is inadequate to face this challenge on its own. 

Thus, the UP Medical Foundation and The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) have joined together to launch a Fund Drive for PPEs—masks, gloves, impermeable gowns, face shields, goggles, scrub booties and other safety gear for the safety of our healthcare workers. 

They are appealing to the best of the Filipino to contribute generously as we all unite to combat this national threat. 

You can deposit your cash donation to:

The U.P. Medical Foundation, Inc. 

Bank: BDO, Bocobo-Pedro Gil Branch 

Account No.: 00-353-0094-018

Swift Code: BNORPHMM 

For proper recording of cash donation, please email a picture of validated deposit slip with the name of donor to: upmf1980@gmail.com or VIBER +63922-338-8051. An official receipt may be issued upon request. For those who want a Certificate of Donation (for tax credit), please send a copy of the following to the same email or viber account: Validated deposit slip / Name of donor / TIN / Address. For those who want to donate/deposit and want to stay anonymous, just text to the same viber the amount deposited and date/time deposited. Lastly, for amounts P50,000 and above, the name and address need to be disclosed for SEC reporting. 

DONATIONS IN KIND are also welcome. If you have any of the following, in any quantity, please message +63977-240-1211 with your name / location / supplies and quantity: 

1. N95 masks

2. Surgical gloves

3. 3 ply mouth masks

4. Alcohol spray / alcogel

5. Face shield / disposable eye shields / goggles 

6. Disposable non-woven gowns

7. Disposable hoods

8. Disposable shoe covers 

They will match your supply to specific hospitals in need. 

 

Photographs by Chris Clemente