Philippine Liver Health Research Initiatives gain a spotlight at the 15th Fondazione Italiana Fegato Annual Scientific Committee Meeting

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña presented the Philippines’ ongoing initiatives and the country’s collaborative efforts on liver health research to the Italian Liver Foundation (FIF) Scientific Committee during the 15th annual meeting on 18 November  2021. 

Sec. de la Peña was warmly welcomed by FIF President, Dr. Decio Ripandelli, FIF Scientific Committee President, Dr. Fransisco Baralle, and FIF Scientific Director, Dr. Claudio Tiribelli. 

The Global Liver Disease Problem

Liver disease continues to be a problem across the globe. Hepatitis, in particular, is a silent killer as many of its victims are asymptomatic. The disease has taken 1.4 million lives around the world every year in the last two decades, according to the World Health Organization. These deaths need not happen as most liver diseases like hepatitis B could be prevented through vaccination, and those who have the disease could be treated, yet not many are aware of this, especially in the Philippines.

One in 10 Filipinos have chronic Hepatitis B, and liver cancer remains one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the country.

To address this, the DOST, together with the University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) initiated the partnership with FIF.

Philippines at the forefront of Liver Research in SEA

The Philippines began its collaboration with FIF in 2019, when the country signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with FIF for capacity building and research and development (R&D). Specific to advancing liver research, the Philippines signed another MOU with FIF and the UPM in August 2021, making the UPM the lead agency in the conduct of R&D efforts. This tripartite partnership, according to Sec. de la Peña, enables shared learning, open funding opportunities, and liver disease research through the establishment of the Philippine Liver Network. 

The Liver Network, once institutionalized, will serve as a collaborative research hub on liver diseases. It will also provide an opportunity for local researchers to “lead, propose, conduct, and publish sustainable and stronger liver studies” by supporting various research projects on liver and liver diseases from conceptualization to utilization.

Three main objectives were set as the foundation upon which the network will be built. They are: (1) to develop and conduct comprehensive research programs on liver diseases, (2) to promote basic and translational research, and (3) to provide a platform for collaborative research.

The Philippines’ Liver Research Agenda is one of the first initiatives of the collaboration. With the help of partners in liver research, 10 priority areas were identified as follows: 1) prevalence, incidence, and risk factors of liver diseases; 2) access to treatment; 3) burdens of liver disease; 4) stigma caused by hepatitis B and its negative impact on healthcare utilization; 5) patient-reported outcomes for liver diseases; 6) non-invasive diagnosis for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis; 7) screening and surveillance programs for early diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma; 8) registry and tissue and serum repository for liver diseases, including transplantation cirrhosis; 9) effectiveness of treatment intervention programs in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; and 10) strategies to increase donor pool for liver transplants. 

After the establishment of the Agenda, two projects were supported under the collaboration and 19 research projects ranging from the study of pediatric liver diseases to public health and policy are already in the pipeline.

The Philippine Liver Network also aims to cultivate and nurture home-grown talents through partnerships with academic institutions like the Universities of Pisa and Trieste. These would allow Filipino scholars to study in Italy to expand their knowledge on liver diseases and liver disease research through degree, sandwich, and fellowship programs.

Other than the efforts mentioned during the presentation, Sec. de la Peña also highlighted DOST’s efforts towards the establishment of the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines, as well as the ASEAN DxD Initiative, which the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development co-chairs with Singapore’s Diagnostics Development Hub.  

The country’s efforts to combat liver disease were very much appreciated by the Scientific Committee. “I think that Filipino scientists are excellent examples of how they can really mix a positive approach to life and a positive approach to science,” Dr. Tiribelli said. “The Philippines actually paved the way to actual and effective interaction between two institutions to understand and to better treat liver disease in the Philippines. This is a unique example in South East Asia [sic].”

Dr. Ripandelli believes that what the Philippines has accomplished thus far in the span of two years would be “a beacon towards creating something at the regional level throughout South East Asia.” The president of the Italian Liver Foundation was certain that the example that the Philippines set will be followed by other countries in the region. 

The DOST-FIF’s Partnership 

Waxing romantic, Dr. Ripandelli called Italy’s collaboration with the Philippines through FIF and DOST a love story. The President of FIF commented that the liver health objectives and activities outlined by DOST coincide with the Italian Liver Foundation’s objectives. “We are lovers by definition, and we are looking forward [to] a very, very long love story in order to enhance what has already been done but [also] what we will be able to do in the future.”

Sec. de la Peña reaffirmed this by saying that the initiatives he presented are only the beginning and he is looking forward  to the developments and the impact of the partnership with FIF in the future. 

The 15th Annual Meeting of the Scientific Committee of the Italian Liver Foundation was held virtually through a Zoom meeting. The meeting was attended by scientists from FIF's network including Filipino DOST-PCHRD scholars in Italy.