Though his original dream was to find a cure for cancer and win the Nobel Prize, Fr. Nicanor “Nic” Robles Austriaco, OP, may just be achieving an equally audacious goal soon: He’s developing a yeast vaccine delivery system for COVID-19 that is cheaper and easier to implement than the standard vaccines currently available.
“It’s a crazy idea, but there’s a lot of scientific research suggesting that such a yeast vaccine delivery system could work,” he tells Aleteia. “I put my lab on this project after learning about the challenges the Filipino people would have in acquiring and deploying vaccines developed in the first world. We have begun vaccine development and it will take many months to determine if it’s effective in animal models.”
A small grant from Providence College funds the preclinical trial stages of this vaccine development plan. He calls his project “Pagasa”— or “hope” in Filipino. (Read: ‘Christian Journalists Should Be Bearers of Hope’ – Pope Francis)
Read below for other fascinating facts about this scientist, microbiologist, professor, and priest!
Fr. Nicanor Grew up Around Science
Born in the Philippines and raised in Thailand, Fr. Nicanor is the eldest of three kids (he has a younger brother and sister). They were raised by their parents who are both engineers.
He finished his bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering (summa cum laude) at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, and completed his PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996. He earned his MBA in 2020 at Providence College, where he also serves as a professor of biology and theology.
A University of the Philippines-OCTA Research fellow involved in pandemic management for the Philippines, Fr. Nicanor is a visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Santo Tomas.
Before COVID-19, Fr. Nicanor Focused on Cancer
On the website of the Dominican-run Providence College, where he teaches biology, Fr. Nicanor cites “biology of cancer, aging, and programmed cell death” as his areas of expertise. The molecular biologist spent the last 20 years using yeast cells to study the molecular basis of cancer. (Read: 3 Priests in the PH Who Are Also Accomplished Scientists)
He Was a Man of Science Before He Became a Priest
It was a calling that spurred him to enter religious life. “I met the Risen Lord on May 7, 1996 at 5:30 in the afternoon,” he said in an interview. “I thought I was going to get married at the time. I was dating a woman [but I] met the Lord and discovered His love for me and my love for Him.”
As to why he chose the Dominican Order, Fr. Nicanor, who entered the Order of Friar Preachers in 1997, said “The Dominicans showed me a life where I could live to work for God, to work for His Glory. It’s like the Dominicans were geeks for God. We study, we preach, we think, we write for the salvation of souls.” (Read: Meet the Millennial Who Gave up Success to Become a Dominican Friar)
Fr. Nic earned his Master of Divinity and Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He finished his Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the University of Fribourg in 2015.
His Goal Is to Develop a Vaccine That Is Like Yakult
“The goal here is that if we are able to develop this oral vaccine, then we would make something like [Japanese probiotic drink] Yakult,” Fr. Nicanor said in an interview.
“You will just take the yeast and you would drink the yeast every day.” Oral vaccines are faster to produce and do away with syringes and refrigeration as well as contact with health workers.
This Filipino Priest Believes Science and Faith Go Hand in Hand
“For most people today, if you are a scientist, you can’t be a believer. Especially a Catholic believer,” he told a group of students, teachers, and parishioners at a gathering in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 2017. (Read: Three Instances That Prove Science and Faith Work Hand In Hand)
“According to the Catholic Church, your brain and your heart are both gifts from God. Seek God with both your brain and your heart. Bring your heart and brain together in the worship of your one true God.”