The USC Medical Biophysics Group
“Biology is the science of the future, and the future is now.” These were the words of Bro. Rommel Bacabac, SVD, PhD, head of the USC Medical Biophysics Group.
For many years, the heart of science was directed to what was beyond us, such as the stars and the galaxies – the entire vastness of the universe per se. However, a recent shift of interest supports the inclination of focusing on what is within ourselves and other living creatures, such as the cells that make up a living being’s body and how cells affect us as we carry on with our lives. This new trend in science clearly favors life itself.
Rapid healing, full immunity from disease, and living for centuries may appear to be elements of science fiction for us today. However, biological research across the globe may entirely change this notion. Stem cells, which can be readily converted to other types of cells, are being carefully examined to find ground-breaking means of regenerating damaged organs. Treatment for incurable diseases like AIDS and cancer are heavily studied. Even the addition of 50 years to the life span of an average person is a significant research interest for many scientists.
It is under the influence of this new trend in science that Bacabac began the USC Medical Biophysics Group. As its name suggests, the research team studies biology from the point of view of physics to contribute to innovations in medicine. Specifically, the group employs physical concepts to study the fundamental principles behind the biological and chemical processes that take place within an organism’s body. For example, blood clotting is the effect of a number of physical processes platelets dance in. Substances in mango peels can be transformed to gel through a medley of chemical and physical interactions. Observing these phenomena may unlock substantial knowledge that could lead to improvements in medical diagnostics.
Preparations for the initiation of the USC Medical Biophysics Group began in 2010 when Bacabac returned from the Netherlands and Germany, where he finished his postgraduate studies in biophysics. Bacabac shared that he asked for equipment that would aid the research group from his professors abroad and, fortunately, they generously granted his requests. The group officially began its operations in March 2011.
Since its inception, the USC Medical Biophysics Group has evolved into a joint research effort, reminiscent of the collaborative biological processes the group concerns itself with. Among its collaborators are the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Chemical Engineering under the headship of the Department of Physics. The team is also linked to the Research Center for Theoretical Physics in the Central Visayan Institute Foundation (RCTP, CVIF) in Jagna, Bohol. International relations include the VU University Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the Kyushu University and the Okayama University in Japan, and the University of Göttingen in Germany. According to Bacabac, the research team is expanding its horizons at an accelerating pace.
Moreover, the USC Medical Biophysics Group is part of the Grants-In-Aid program for human resource development of the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). With this grant, undergraduate and graduate students can be trained in the research group for two years with assistance from the Philippine government. This support includes financial aid for postgraduate research, group trainings, technical trainings, and seminars and conferences. In short, researchers are well groomed to be competent individuals in this field of study.
The current research program of the group is nicknamed “Cells and Gels.” Cells are the building blocks of any life form that collectively work to perform the biological processes that keep us alive, similar to how musical tones work with each other to provide music. Cells also contain the molecules that ultimately dictate the health of an individual, also akin to how musical tones have different properties that characterize the sound they produce. In the laboratory of the USC Medical Biophysics Group, cells are compressed, cooled, stretched or manipulated in many other ways in the hope of providing the knowledge necessary to fight off certain diseases. Furthermore, the team extends its research to gels, which may provide information about transforming otherwise useless materials into valuable resources. With the cooperation of the Department of Chemical Engineering, the group studies mango peels as sources of gelling agents for human consumption.
Future research projects of the USC Medical Biophysics Group will mainly concern itself with soft matter, which covers all substances that readily react to temperature changes, such as DNA and many other biological materials. This research will be dealing with objects in the scale of microns, which are smaller than the average diameter of a strand of human hair. This prospective research effort will most likely show us the rhythm that certain substances in our bodies follow as they go about the processes that keep us alive.
With all these linkages, recognitions and research programs, Bacabac invites all students, even those outside the collaborating departments, to contribute to the research of the USC Medical Biophysics Group. He emphasized that the research the group conducts will be for naught if it does not find its way to good use. In this sense, everyone can essentially help. The research is an orchestra in which different fields of study interact to establish a symphony, with each field playing a role as pivotal as that of others. Bacabac explains that the natural sciences initiate the research by performing the needed experiments in medical biophysics, effectively establishing the academic framework of the project. Next, engineering provides efficient methods to convert the research findings into something appropriate for mass production, ensuring that the results answer to the necessities of the consumers. Finally, effective marketing introduces the findings, suitably converted for commercial purposes to society; attracting the public to the innovations that biophysics puts in place. When all these are set, novel methods in medical diagnostics become readily accessible to those who need them.
When asked about what he would say to the students to entice them to research under the USC Medical Biophysics Group, Bacabac simply replied, “We make science fun.” Indeed, at first glance, the research his team undertakes is apparently one horrific muddle. However, upon looking at the greater scheme of the organization of this wonderful mess, upon understanding how a research on things as small as cells can improve the quality of life of something as large as one whole community, we cannot help admiring the beautiful music this research team composes.