When the pandemic hit and lockdowns were implemented in March 2020, Dr. Reynaldo “Rey” L. Garcia of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) unexpectedly found a bigger and more important role for his laboratory. He volunteered to loan out his laboratory’s RT-qPCR machine and other equipment to COVID-19 testing laboratories and to the Lung Center of the Philippines while they wait for the procurement of these equipment. Together with his research assistants, they also mapped out the locations and created a database of qPCR machines across the country and made arrangements for the loaning and lending to accredited testing labs.
With the help of social media, Dr. Garcia initiated a call for volunteers with RT-qPCR experience who will be deployed to accredited testing centers. Many of the volunteers were his research assistants (RAs) and students who were trained in his laboratory and at the NIMBB. Their call for volunteers was expanded to include medical technologists who could help with swabbing, sample preparation and even RT-qPCR. Some of his RAs also co-founded Scientists Unite Against COVID-19—an alliance of concerned scientists, organizations and other citizens—and launched a massive social media information campaign about COVID-19, COVID-19 testing, and preventing viral transmission.
Because his students and RAs could not volunteer indefinitely, they had to make sure that the country was ready to fight COVID-19 without them in the frontlines. For this, they provided technical training and customized seminars to med techs who will take over their roles. Dr. Garcia’s RAs who were deployed to the Lung Center of the Philippines and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) spent their last two weeks volunteering by training newly hired med techs who will run the testing labs after they leave.
Dr. Garcia has founded and headed the Disease Molecular Biology and Epigenetics Laboratory (DMBEL) in NIMBB since its establishment in 2011. They focus on the functional characterization of novel non-hotspot mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressors, as well as the regulatory roles of non-coding RNAs in cancer pathogenesis. Ten years after its establishment, Dr. Garcia and his lab now maintains an exemplary reputation as one of the most well-equipped laboratories in the country comparable to labs in first world countries.
Dr. Garcia, who has been focusing on cancer research since 1999 in the United Kingdom, has published mainly on colorectal cancer, and most recently on microRNAs, long non-coding RNAs and circular RNAs. Despite a long and fruitful stint abroad, Dr. Garcia decided to come back to the Philippines, bringing with him 20 years of education, training and experience in molecular biology and biomedical research.
He carried on with this passion when he came back to teach and do his research in NIMBB. One of his goals is to study ethnic nuances in the mutational landscape of Filipino cancer patients through his research and this ambition led him to set up DMBEL.
With state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, generous grants from UP and DOST, and highly skilled laboratory personnel, Dr. Garcia and his colleagues have not only reaped interesting and significant research findings, but were also able to respond to emergencies and extend a helping hand during the country’s most critical months.
Apart from DMBEL being able to publish in high-impact international journals, Dr. Garcia also envisions it to be an excellent research laboratory that will produce the next generation of molecular biologists who will help form the critical mass we so badly need. Dr. Garcia hopes that studies done in his laboratory can help improve clinical practice, especially in the area of differential cancer diagnosis and personalized medicine. At the same time, he hopes to produce scientists who are technically capable and globally competitive.
For the head of the multi-awarded laboratory, UP and other research and teaching institutes should strive to establish a world class reputation so that they could entice young aspirants to do their PhD and postdoctoral studies locally. “We need to attract highly-driven post-doctoral fellows who are at the peak of their careers,” he says.
Dr. Garcia says he is proud that his lab has come a long way but it also has a lot more to offer. He is constantly working with researchers all over the country in the area of drug discovery and hopes to leverage biodiversity in the Philippines in the search for first-in-class and novel drug candidates.