History of the National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of the Philippines Manila, is the home of research units of the University of the Philippines Manila, the country’s leading health research and development institution, and the Health Sciences Center of the UP System. With “Health for All” as its thrust, the NIH develops outputs that serve as vital guideposts in shaping national programs and policies.

Before creating the NIH, the University of the Philippines Manila has already geared itself to be the country’s leading institution for health research and development. Aside from the people-centered training of medical practitioners through its colleges and units, the University has established research institutes manned by an assemblage of scholars and researchers whose proven performance contributes to the development of their respective fields. These research institutes are the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Socio-Biomedical Research, and the Institute of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology.

The institutional structure of a network of national institutes of health has been utilized in many countries to put together under one roof research and extension units specializing in different aspects of health and sociobiomedical concerns. Such a structure allows for the nurturance and in-depth development of important subfields of health while reaping the benefits of the coordination of various research centers and experts learning from each other’s outputs and strengths for exchange of information, collaboration, and enhancement of their contributions. Furthermore, the economy of shared administrative overhead costs and environmental scanning would be additional advantages of such an institutional option.

The National Institutes of Health in the University of the Philippines Manila was then created on 26 January 1996 by the UP Board of Regents (BOR) to respond to the challenges brought about by the University’s mission to enhance existing capacity for research and improve its performance in health research and development. The establishment of the NIH emphasizes the research function of UP Manila and place it at par with the University’s reputation of excellence in instruction, particularly its Colleges of Medicine and Public Health and other academic units, and in public service as exemplified by the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s premier tertiary care training hospital.

The NIH sought to develop the existing pool of faculty and staff into scholars with the enhanced capacity for teaching, practice, research, publication, and application of the latest findings, utilization, and technology in health. With the creation of the NIH, the particular interrelationship of the Department of Health, the Department of Science and Technology, and UP Manila in health research and development are formally recognized.

Even during its early decades when organizational structures for conducting systematic and ethical research were not yet firmly in place, UP Manila had conducted several studies that served as the basis for the national government’s adoption of relevant policies and programs to improve the health of Filipinos.

The research on medicinal plants conducted by the National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants (NIRPROMP) started in 1977 became one of the bases for contemporary herbal medicine use in the Philippines. Its researches opened the doors to the production of more herbal medicines in the Philippines and enabled Filipinos to buy cheaper alternatives, such as lagundi for asthma, cough, and bronchitis; and sambong for diuresis and urolithiasis, tsaang gubat for abdominal colic and spasm, and yerba Buena for body pain.

When several disasters hit the Philippines in the early 1990s, the studies conducted by the faculty and staff of the Department of Psychiatry of the Philippine General Hospital provided the basis for the establishment of the “Program for Psychosocial Intervention in Disaster Management.” The program increased recognition for this field of health science and helped victims rise from their traumatic experiences and rebuild their lives.

Another early contribution to national health is the program on preventive immunization of Filipino newborns for Hepatitis B spurred by a series of research led by University Professor Emeritus Dr. Ernesto Domingo. The groundbreaking investigations on HepB and other types of hepatitis led to successful advocacy of neonatal hepatitis vaccination that has saved millions of Filipinos. The studies also resulted in the development of technologies on viral hepatitis. These included the rapid epidemiologic assessment for HepB positive individuals, diagnostic reagents for testing HepB virus carrier individuals, and microparticle agglutination test for HepC.

Before the turn of the millennium, President Fidel V. Ramos unveiled his administration’s slogan of “Philippines 2000,” where he envisions the Philippines achieving its newly industrialized country (NIC) status by 2000. Integral to this was Ramos’ belief that a continuously developing health research arm was critical to the country’s NIC status. Among the requisites to achieve Philippines 2000 was three-fold: a healthy workforce, a pool of experts for research, development, and industry, and a strong science and technology research and development network.

Philippines 2000 was the context for the further institutionalization of the NIH through the passage of Republic Act No. 8503, or the “Health Research and Development Act,” signed by President Ramos on 13 February 1998. The Act directed the NIH to serve as the coordinating and integrating body of existing and forthcoming research institutes in UP Manila. Thus, the passage of RA 8503 aided UP Manila in expanding the type, quality, and quantity of its mission-oriented research in the spectrum of health.

When the BOR created the NIH in 1996, it absorbed the UP Manila’s Institute of Ophthalmology, Institute of Socio-Biomedical Research, and Institute of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology as its first component units. After its institutionalization into law in 1998, the NIH underwent its first significant reorganization with its Institutes clustered under four broad health concerns, each with their respective research thrusts: the Health Product Programs Cluster, the Health Promotion, Disease Prevention, and Control Programs Cluster, the Gerontology and Disabilities Programs Cluster, and the Social and Humanistic Studies and Health Care System Studies Cluster.

The NIH also houses various study groups and research programs in health and allied medical and socio-biomedical concerns. As a collective, outputs from these bodies serve as vital guideposts in developing policies and programs that redound to the health-related interests of the people.

In 2013, the NIH became one of the four core agencies of the Philippine National Health Research Systems (PNHRS). The PNHRS is anchored on the Essential National Health Research principles of inclusiveness, participation, quality, equity, and effectiveness. It is part of a global movement to establish national health research systems in a country setting. The NIH was also designated as a Training Center for Health Research Ethics and Good Clinical Practice by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR), Strategic Initiative for Developing Capacity in Ethical Review (SIDCER), and Forum for Ethical Review Committees in Asia and the Western Pacific (FERCAP). Presently, this has continued as the NIH Training Program for Health Research.

Significant research output from the Institutes of the NIH has produced several health-related policies with national impact – RA 9288 or the “Newborn Screening Act” in 2004, RA 9709 or the “Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Act” in 2009, RA 10747 or the “Rare Disease Act” in 2016, and RA 11358 or the “National Vision Screening Act” in 2019. In addition, the NIH, together with other colleges of UP Manila, has crafted position papers and policy statements for the Senate and the House of Representatives and has participated actively in public hearings on health-related bills.

The NIH has also contributed to the country’s efforts to build on basic scientific research to create new therapies, medical procedures, or diagnostics. Fundamental research work done by scientists at the NIH is driven by their research outputs to not end in knowledge generation but in knowledge translation to reach even the most marginalized sectors of the country. For example, herbal medicine such as lagundi and sambong is not widely prescribed. Diagnostic kits for multi-infectious disease targets have provided affordable access to molecular-based technologies in areas deprived of advanced clinical laboratories for timely and life-saving infectious disease diagnostics such as dengue and leptospirosis. These advancements in technologies have led to the birth of the first University spin-off company of UP Manila, Manila HealthTek, Inc. to develop and scale up affordable molecular-based diagnostic kits for both communicable and non-communicable diseases for Filipinos and beyond. The RxBox is a multi-component program – biomedical device, electronic medical record system and telemedicine training, designed to provide better access to life-saving health care services in isolated and disadvantaged communities nationwide.

Other significant contributions of the NIH are as follows: National Objectives for Health, National Unified Health Research Agenda, Vaccine Effectiveness Trials: Dengue Vaccine, COVID vaccines, Telemedicine Practice Guidelines, Physicians’ Act of 2020: Philippine National eHealth System of Services Act, FIT for FRAIL: Focused Interventions for Frail Older Adults Research and Development Program, Dementia Tool Kit, National Cochlear Implant Program, and Precision Medicine Initiatives for Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes.