Almost 40 years ago, Dr. R. Lee Clark’s visit to Cuba kick-started a small but concerted effort to become a leader in biomedical science.
Today, the results-driven Cuban health science industry has grown to such an extent within Cuba that it is looking to expand to the rest of the world, including to the United States. And even further, some people are heading to Cuba for treatment of chronic diseases.
Dr. Clark, then president of University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, visited the island on November 1980, where the late Fidel Castro took an interest in the latest advance in cancer treatment – the interferon.
Interferon is a naturally-occurring protein in the body that inhibits virus development in cells, and was thought of as a wonder drug with potential for not only stemming viruses, but also in fighting various cancers.
Castro sent two Cuban doctors back with Dr. Clark to M.D. Anderson for training, as well as a group of doctors to Finland, where Dr. Kari Cantell had perfected a method of producing and isolating interferon in a laboratory.
Where other countries often paid top dollar to use Dr. Cantell’s Finnish interferon, Castro decided that Cuba would have its own supply. Shortly after tasking a group of scientists to create interferon from human blood, the labors bore fruit, with the team of six scientists producing their first leukocyte interferon in 1981. The interferon successfully underwent its first test during a wave of dengue fever, when it was shown that the interferon could prevent hemorrhagic complications when used early in children who contracted the virus.
The small contingent of 6 scientists, then collectively called Cuba’s Center for Biological Research, eventually became part of the 300-employee Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in 1986. Today, the CIGB employs over 1,700 workers. Across Cuba, BioCubaFarma – the umbrella entity for Cuban biotech and pharmaceutical industries – operates 21 research centers and 70 factories.
Merardo Pujol Ferrer, director for Heber Biotec, who markets Cuba biotech products, says that the Cuban biotech and pharmaceutical industries have not been able to benefit from massive marketing budgets, but have used that to their advantage – rather than trying to advance in the world market by promoting products, it promotes its results.
Cuba has been on the cutting edge of prevention and vaccination for years now. Cuban scientists developed a diagnostic kit for HIV in 1988, and a hepatitis B vaccine in the 1990s along with a campaign that took the occurrence of hepatitis B from 230,000 in 1991 to less than 100 today. In addition, the same center that made interferon those many years ago made vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, meningitis B and C, and influenza Type B, among many other products for plants, animals, and industrial purposes.
As the historically results-driven Cuban biomedical industry looks to expand its market, others can’t help but take notice, including George Keays, who was diagnosed with non-small cell adenocarcinoma in 2015. After doing some research, he found a unique immunotherapy in Cuba held the most hope, which helps the body attack a protein with a cancer cell’s development. The body has a tough time recognizing the protein, but the treatment attaches an antibody to that protein in order to make the immune system recognize it as foreign and attack it.
Hopeful about the new treatment and faced with new travel and trade restrictions between the US and Cuba, Keays simply said, “You’ll do what you have to do.”