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Thomasian scientists on the painstaking process of validating new COVID-19 test kits

“When I accepted this clinical validation, I realized that, as a scientist, I have been living in a bubble. First, I expected that things would be a breeze but doing research in a pandemic is totally a different story,” Albano said.

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Team of researchers and faculty members from the College of Science — (From left to right) Asst. Prof. Nikki Heherson Dagamac, Dr. rer. nat., Prof. Pia Marie Albano, Ph.D., Asst. Prof. Maureen B. Sabit, Ph.D., and Mr. Reuel Bennett, Dr. rer. nat.

Thomasian researchers are on the brink of validating a cheaper and faster PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)-based detection of the COVID-19 virus.

The cost of a PCR-testing can be marked down once enough research has shown that this kit can successfully track the presence of COVID-19. This can eliminate the need for trained swabbers and enable the patients to swab themselves. Self-collection will expedite the process, reduce the spread of infection, and lessen labor.

As if the science behind it was not meticulous enough, the execution did not come easy either.

Singaporean Biotech company MiRXes Pte commissioned lead proponent Prof. Pia Marie Albano, Ph.D. to provide clinical validation of the company’s qPCR (quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction) kit for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 via nasopharyngeal and saliva samples. Her team was composed of Mr. Reuel Bennett, Dr. rer. nat., Asst. Prof. Nikki Heherson Dagamac, Dr. rer. nat., and Asst. Prof. Maureen Sabit, Ph.D. from the Department of Biological Sciences. 

“When I accepted this clinical validation, I realized that, as a scientist, I have been living in a bubble. First, I expected that things would be a breeze but doing research in a pandemic is totally a different story. I encountered several challenges that I did not encounter pre-pandemic,” Albano said in the 2nd Science and Technology (STS) Summit.

During the 2nd STS Summit on Nov. 12, Albano outlined the key challenges the team had to hurdle through, namely ethical approval, study site, participant recruitment, team safety, and molecular analyses. 

The surge of Delta cases nearly ruined everything

In May 2021, the team chose Ilocos Norte, 512 kilometers from the city of Manila, to serve as their study site. Ilocos Norte seemed like the perfect place to get their samples processed. The facilities needed to successfully conduct the validation and the endemic situation of coronavirus cases were kept at bay.

“When we were about to send the equipment and materials to the study site, our research partners in the area could no longer commit because COVID-19 cases [had] started to dramatically increase after detecting Delta,” Albano said. 

While waiting to get cleared by the ethics committee, she noticed the spike of COVID cases in the locale and began to draft contingency plans. Thanks to their proactivity,  the team was able to subcontract Singapore Diagnostics (SGD) which is a private DOH-accredited COVID-19 molecular testing facility in Makati. They figured that, with the sticky situation, it might not be “wise” to partner with a government-run hospital at the time.

“At this point, there was no turning back. I am accountable and I was committed to successfully implement the trial despite all the odds,” Albano said.

They set foot – rather by boat, in the province of Candaba, Pampanga as their new and final study site. The new study site exposed the team to language barriers and boisterous weather conditions. Their kick-off was pushed months later on Aug. 6.

During its early stages, the team’s first batch of swabbers and drivers had tested positive and resigned after their quarantine. Luckily, the team had been training additional swabbers and drivers in high-risk areas, and strictly imposed biosafety guidelines and testing every week. This smooth transition meant that the trial could go unhindered despite the setbacks faced.

COVID-19 stigma among participants

Participant recruitment for the validation of cheaper and faster COVID-19 PCR-based test kits. Screengrab from the 2nd Science and Technology Summit

“A positive result was equated to loss of income,” she said as she described how the stigma of getting a positive result affected families. 

Many potential participants hesitated due to the stigma associated with positive cases. Positive COVID results meant that breadwinners could not provide for their families; they could starve while waiting in quarantine. 

This spurred Albano to give sacks of rice rather than the initially planned monetary compensation. 

Political and administrative power dynamics

“In the past, I would only need to present to the medical director and department heads of hospitals whenever I would invite for collaboration. However, in this clinical trial, this clinical trial taught me the importance of understanding the local power dynamics in order to access potential participants,” she said.

According to Albano, access to areas with high COVID-19 cases, quarantine facilities, and community-based testing sites were the hardest. 

“I had to ask the support of medical technologists to have access to their COVID-19 testing facilities. I approached factory workers and factory owners to have their members and employees tested for free. I also invited healthcare workers, especially the volunteers in vaccination sites. And of course, I invited the UST community to participate,” she said. 

Regulations at the local level are dependent on the current COVID situation. Some places have implemented local lockdowns based on where the cases are. The strategy became focused on a constant dialogue with community members and different organizations within communities. It resulted in genuine collaboration between stakeholders in all aspects of the clinical trial. 

“Principal investigators of COVID-19 clinical trials should possess flexibility because the pandemic presents unforeseen changes and diversity of situations one should be able to adjust to constraints and to make fast decisions and plans during ambiguous situations,” she said.

Conducting clinical trials during a pandemic is no easy feat. Albano’s team learned that through the various obstacles that they faced. From the study site to the lack of participants, team safety, and the various political and administrative hurdles, they broke through to the other side to tell the tale.

Despite the odds, the team was still able to pull-off figures beyond the required 300 positive and 500 negative cases for testing. The results will then be sent to MiRXes for further validation and application by the FDA in Singapore. 

Christine Nicole Montojo
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Angela Gabrielle Magbitang Atejera
Reports Writer | + posts

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‘Budol culture’: How retail therapy entices Thomasian shopaholics

Online shopping is not only a product of consumerism and advertising; it can also be a way of coping with this pandemic.

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Artwork by Wendell Adrian Quijado/TomasinoWeb

As the holiday breeze swiftly approaches, the holy grail of business sales has also made its way to entice shopaholics. It is that time of the year again when Christmas grand sales take markets by storm.

Since the pandemic began, people have slowly turned towards online stores and markets to buy essential needs and trivial items.

Digital platforms like Lazada, Shopee, Zalora, and BeautyMNL have become the leaders in local online shopping applications. With the never-ending lockdowns and quarantine, Filipino sellers and buyers now focus online, maximizing their use of these new and effective platforms to venture out into their own business as well as purchasing items.

When it comes to this, Thomasians are no strangers. Many students have been engaging with these e-commerce apps to buy skincare products, clothes, makeup, and random things they might find necessary. 

But online shopping is not only a product of consumerism and advertising; it can also be a way of coping with this pandemic.

‘Retail therapy?’

Medical technology junior Lorraine Pagdato confirmed that online shopping helped her cope with the pandemic. 

“Yes. Online shopping served as one of my coping mechanisms during this pandemic. With the stress that I acquire due to online classes, online shopping has given me a sense of joy outside academics,” she told TomasinoWeb

Despite all the stress that burdened her during the pandemic, online shopping seemed to have sparked a sense of joy whenever she buys a product.

It’s like there’s something therapeutic whenever I click the ‘add-to-cart’ and the ‘check out’ buttons in Shopee or Lazada,” Pagdato shared. 

However, she also added that relieving stress through online shopping is not that healthy because it involves wasting money on things that aren’t needed. 

Pagdato reiterated, “I think it’s not an overall good habit since sometimes, we keep on splurging for stuff that we don’t need leading to overspending.”

Regardless of these consequences, tourism junior Mardz Forte thinks online shopping is better than physical stores. 

“Actually, yes, if magaling ka mag-risk, I mean if magaling ka kumilatis sa mga reviews ganon kasi mas mapapabilis buhay mo,” she said. Forte also stated the importance of exploring the product and shop ratings can help buyers purchase a good quality product. 

“May reviews na mga tao sa mismong product upon shopping, hindi na kailangan lumabas, madalas mas makakadiscount pa, madaming pagpipilian, at madali makakita ng murang items,” she added.

Tourism junior Ella Malig echoes the same sentiments, citing the convenience of e-commerce platforms. 

“Online shopping makes it easier for customers and also hassle-free since hindi na aalis ng bahay,” she said.

Pagdato also revealed that e-commerce platforms spared her from the stress of buying school necessities amid quarantine restrictions.

“Since I am a medical technology student, some of my subjects require me to have medical supplies. It is now difficult to buy those in the middle of a pandemic, so I resort to online shopping,” she said. 

In addition, Pagdato mentioned that she usually buys school supplies online, from highlighters down to notebooks, in preparation for online classes. 

The selection of items in online shops stretches far as different products can be bought there, such as for households, personal use, and even sports equipment. For Pagdato, shopping online becomes a feasible choice to buy essentials amid the health crisis as it lessens the possibility of the virus spreading. 

“Since we are in the middle of a pandemic, my family usually buys our necessities like food, toiletries, and disinfectants online to avoid the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus outside,” Pagdato said. 

Online consumerism

But how do they feel about continuous online sales that seem very enticing and influencers that encourage this kind of shopaholism? 

For Pagdato, influencers do have an impact on consumerism online. When influencers try a certain product, whether it’s good or bad, the influencer’s opinion affects their audience’s decision.

Malig, on the other hand, added that the monthly sale of online shopping platforms captivates its audience and leads to impulsive buying as well. 

Pagdato added to this thought by saying, “It is nice to buy things on sale, use free shipping vouchers, get a ‘cashback.’”

According to her, these factors attract consumers to buy lots of products since it was instilled in our minds that we can save tons of money using those several vouchers and discounts. She thinks it’s a good strategy because it gives people something to look forward to every month.

Filipinos are getting encouraged to buy online nowadays, which sometimes leads to spontaneous hoarding of unnecessary random items. However, it’s pretty therapeutic and relieves the stress due to the pandemic, Pagdato said. 

As for whether it’s a good or bad thing, Forte said that it depends on how you spend your money. If your savings just go to unnecessary purchases, then it’s bad. It’s only a good thing as you don’t need to go out and risk yourself contracting the virus.

“Marami naman advantages [ang] online shopping….mas convenient lalo na ngayong pandemic halos lahat ng stores nag-sswitch na sa online world,” Forte said. 

Bianca Labraque
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UST creative writing major Aleia Anies’ shot in the dark

After submitting the revised version of her piece about siblings tackling grief and mental health issues for her playwriting subject, Anies didn’t hope for anything let alone be accepted.

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Photo courtesy of Ellie Bun

UST AB Creative Writing student, Aleia Marie Anies will be joining the three-week Virgin Labfest 16 Writing Fellowship Program starting Nov. 16 until Dec. 5. 

In an interview with TomasinoWeb, Anies shared her excitement from being one of the eight fellows for this year’s CCP’s Virgin Labfest Fellowship (VLF) Program. 

Being the first Creative Writing undergraduate from the University to attend the event, Anies couldn’t help but feel ecstatic. “Actually, hindi pa nagsisink in, as in ang surreal,” she said.

Although she initially considered dropping out, there were questions that lingered around her. “Kasi alam mo ‘yung feeling na pumapasok na, ‘What if hanggang dito na lang ako?’ ‘What if hindi ko na kayang gumawa pa or magsulat pa ng mas maganda?’ ‘What if hindi ako mag-improve as a writer?’” 

But for the creative writing major, the mere fact that she was chosen and given this opportunity was enough reason for her to keep going. It was the sign that she was waiting for.

Anies also shared that her submission for the VLF was “a shot in the dark.” After submitting the revised version of her piece about siblings tackling grief and mental health issues for her playwriting subject, she didn’t hope for anything let alone be accepted.

When asked about what motivates her to write, the 36th Gawad Ustetika winner for Fiction used soap suds and sponges as metaphors for writing.

“Writers are like sponges, we have to be able to absorb the things around us at ang gamit natin ay ‘yung senses natin. I think soap suds are the perfect analogy for our regurgitating words […] Kasi kailangan mo talagang pigain yung sarili mo as a writer before ka makaproduce ng soap, before ka makaproduce ng work or literature,” she said.

Originality comes second for the writer as she emphasized the need for a writer to be able to squeeze themselves and create a good piece. “I think a good piece of literature comes from a writer who can squeeze themselves, ‘yung kayang dikdikin ‘yung sarili nila and someone who is always willing to absorb new information, always willing to learn, to learn from themselves, but also, to learn from others.” 

For three weeks of exchanging insights and establishing a bond, Anies is excited about what will happen, “I’m looking forward to learning from other people, I’m looking forward to watching a lot more plays and sobrang excited ako sa workshop kasi nga diba […] gusto kong pigain pa ako, gusto kong mapiga pa para mareach ko ‘yung full potential ko.” 

The Virgin Labfest Fellowship Writing Program is an annual event of the Cultural Center of the Philippines that focuses on training young aspiring playwrights through lectures, discussions, and workshops. This year, Glenn Sevilla Mas, the multi-award-winning playwright, will be mentoring the fellows. 

Aliah Basbas
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Tale of struggle: Music alumnus shares thyroid cancer journey

“You will always find answers to everything. Not until you die, it’s not yet a dead end,” Mendoza said.

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fonzy mendoza
Artwork by Wendell Adrian Quijado/TomasinoWeb

Fonzy Mendoza, 38, could not help but be nervous as he gripped on the results of his fine-needle aspiration biopsy after discovering a lump on his neck. With trembling hands, he opened the envelope to find the words “Suspicious For Papillary Carcinoma” written in bold on the front.

Mendoza, a music alumnus from the University of Santo Tomas, prides himself as a healthy person. Despite not being a health buff, he never smoked and always ate healthily. But one day, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, taking his life in a different route.

“I was really stunned and for a temporary time, I’m really unable to react […] Hindi ako makapaniwala totoo ba to? Is this really happening to me? Marami-raming tao nung time na yun pero wala akong marinig na ingay […] I felt numb,” Mendoza told TomasinoWeb

Once he told his parents about his diagnosis, Mendoza came up with an action plan. He didn’t go through the in-denial stage as he immediately learned which doctors to meet and what treatments would possibly be done to him. 

“I was also afraid to lose my life. When I say life, life in general, life per se, passion gives me life. Like singing is my passion. There [was] a possibility that I could lose my voice too,” he said. 

There was no other way aside from getting surgery, so he met with a number of doctors who would take care of both his life and his passion.

“Alamin mo yung ino-operahan nila na [thyroid cancer patients] in a year because you need to know their expertise at ilan ang successful rate. […] If they will fit not only to operate me but in a way that I could still live the way it was,” he said. 

After a tedious search, Mendoza found Dr. Gerard Agcaoili, a doctor in Medical City who he believed to be the most fitting doctor to operate on him.

“[Dr. Agcaoili] will also take care of my life and my voice because he’s a doctor of singers, so he knows my aim,” he said. 

Being ‘strong’

“Because people see me as a strong person, […] feeling nila I can do everything on my own so yung expectation ng tao, kaya ko,” Mendoza said as he remembered the struggles of realizing that his diagnosis somehow altered his relationship with the people around him. According to him, being “strong” does not seem to fit with him when he was battling cancer, but people would still see him as such. 

There was not enough support as his parents couldn’t fly to the Philippines, and he only had his best friend and ex-partner with him. Although he had friends checking up on him from time to time, Mendoza said it felt different.

“Iba ‘yung nandoon sa tabi mo eh. I wasn’t getting that [support] kasi nga ang taas taas ng tingin nila sakin,” he said. “I hate it that people look at me so strong. I hate that people look at me as [if] I can do everything. Because [during] that time, I want to feel loved. I want to feel embraced. I want to feel that I’m weak.”

The lack of support Mendoza got was the reason he felt that he did not have enough strength even though his doctor said they were ready to operate on him. But when he prayed before getting inside the operating room, he felt a different kind of love. It was a sudden feeling of ease, and that made him feel ready.

“Kaya sabi ko noon faith has revived me kasi it makes me feel that I will be okay, that I’ll live my life after this operation, [and that] I can do things with a purpose,” he said. 

Words of affirmation

Mendoza understood that people’s words of affirmation were their way of supporting him through his cancer journey, but there were instances when it didn’t feel like it.

“People and some doctors will always say [thyroid cancer] is good cancer, but how can it be good if it’s cancer?” he said after some people told him that his cancer was “curable compared to others.”

But what those people failed to understand was his cancer had already altered the physical and emotional effects he would go through. Someone even assured him that taking levothyroxine, a synthetic version of a thyroid hormone used to treat thyroid hormone deficiency, would help him feel better.

“[Thyroid cancer] changes the phasing of my life. When we say life, it’s how you live it. Kung ano yung proseso kung pano ka mabuhay, na-alter ‘yun and how can I be okay if I cannot be the same?”

Another thing that Mendoza didn’t want was people who would look at him as if he would die. He felt that with some of his friends who told him they “needed” to go out when they found out about his ordeal. 

“Lumabas tayo in a way because we want to celebrate life [and] not because as if that’s my last day,” he said. He wants people to know that it’s not okay for a cancer patient to hear these kinds of words.

“Kahit sinong may sakit na tao, ‘wag mo iparamdam na last day na nila […] because once you lose hope, they will lose hope.”

Surviving ThyCa

It usually takes five years to know that a person is already cancer-free or is already in remission. In Mendoza’s case, it’s been two years since his test showed that the cancer was undetectable. 

“Even though I’m not yet in [full] remission, […] I can say that I’m really a survivor,” he said. 

Mendoza plans to launch a non-profitable organization called “Be Your Own HERO” where people with different types of cancer uplift each other through sessions. 

“[Ang] cancer patient, ang kailangan niyan moral suport eh aside from financial […] Sa pamilya minsan kulang, kailangan manggaling yun sa mga tao na nakaka-experience noon mismo […] ‘yung on-hand experience minsan mas tangible sa tao,” he said. 

Mendoza said battling cancer could be paralyzing emotionally, physically, and mentally but he told people never to lose hope.

“You will always find answers to everything. Not until you die, it’s not yet a dead end,” Mendoza said.

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