Filipina at the Helm of COVID-19 Mass Testing
A true-blue Filipina hardly 5 feet (1.50m) tall and nothing short of genius, is leading a team of researchers at an illustrious university in Switzerland, the same university Albert Einstein attended as a student and later taught physics. Her group has developed a method using technologies that can process hundreds of thousands of tests for Covid 19 within days. Apparently, she is the only woman and Asian group leader at the Functional Genomics Centre Zurich (FGCZ), interdisciplinary research and training centre of the University of Zurich and the ETH Zurich.
Despite the scientific breakthrough of Catharine Aquino-Fournier’s group, she feels uncomfortable being referred to as a scientist. She says it is reserved for professors and/or principal investigators.
As a child, Catharine remembers being fascinated about the world while poring over the pages of Encyclopedia Britannica. She found history and science the most interesting. Taking up a science degree is normal for her family members.
“If I didn’t take up Biology, I would have studied Geology or Archaeology. I lived in Los Baños, Laguna all my life before going to Switzerland. I was even born inside the UP campus. UP Los Baños is a science hub in the Philippines and because of this, it fosters an environment where kids aspire to be scientists, doctors, or engineers.”
She completed her bachelor’s degree in Biology and Master’s in Genetics, major in Molecular Biology at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños (UPLB). Her sister, a statistician, was a scholar at the Department of Science and Technology also at UPLB.
A job opportunity at the International Rice Research (IRRI) opened for Catharine. As fate would have it, there she met her Swiss scientist husband, who was then doing practical work at the institute for some months.
Catharine began work at FGCZ in 2005 as a 50% technician. Today she leads a team of virologist, plant scientist, and bioinformaticians who explores life science research with state-of-the-art technologies for genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics as well as by high-end bioinformatics analysis. From research projects, they provide the technologies and expertise to enable scientists to answer research questions quickly and accurately.
“In March at the beginning of the shutdown, we felt helpless and unmotivated. We were concerned for our families and loved ones. Since Covid 19 testing is something we understand because it also uses genomics technologies, we thought of motivating ourselves by developing a method using the technologies we are experts of to help alleviate the shortage of diagnostic kits as well as a lack of infrastructure to perform necessary testing. We developed a method that allows highly multiplexed sequencing that could test tens of thousands of individuals per day starting from saliva or direct lysates.”
They call it the HiDRA-seq, a scientific breakthrough that detects the novel corona virus using Next Generation Sequencing, a state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology. The tested methodology does indeed work and was published in early June. Material cost per test is inexpensive at approx. 2 US dollars (2 CHF) minus the swab test process. The biggest advantage of this method is the control of the pandemic particularly in countries still ridden with the virus. Mass testing can now be rapid, affordable, and reliable.
"I am doing a job I love, in a place that I love and with co-workers that I also love. What I love about my work is that it never gets boring. I get to learn new things every day. We advance as the field advances. We support many groups from ETH Zurich and University of Zurich working on many very interesting and relevant research. We have projects about improving finger millet nutrient availability, cancer diagnostics, forensics, gene editing, and medical genetics to name a few. We will release a V2 of the paper soon with increased analytical sensitivity."
Creation continues to writhe in pain with the resurgence of the pandemic. Thousands have put their lives in the line of duty. Many have sadly succumbed. Still a handful is hard at work to avert and find a cure through scientific studies. To each goes a deep sense of gratitude.
To a people of hope, breakthroughs are inevitable. Zurich-based Catharine Aquino Fournier’s contribution to control the pandemic in countries ridden with the virus is hope personified. Her story is here to inspire today’s and the next generations.