Cuba takes lead in genetic engineering, biotechnology
By Tim Wheeler, People's Weekly World, 14 December 1996
HAVANA - Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is one of a handful of research and production facilities in the world that use recombinant DNA methods to produce vaccines against meningitis, hepatitis, and other killer diseases.
Their medications are marketed around the world by Heber- Biotec, SA. But don't expect your physician to prescribe them.
The 34-year U.S. blockade of Cuba is keeping them out of U.S. pharmacies even though there are documented cases of people in the U.S. dying for lack of them. For the powers that be, overthrowing socialism "90 miles from home" comes first.Sonia Gonzalez Blanco, a young biochemist, welcomed my interpreter and me to the sprawling, modern complex in the western suburbs of Havana one November afternoon. In an hour-long interview she explained the work of the 850 researchers and hundreds more production workers. Then she took us on a tour of the labs where scientists use electron scanning microscopes and other high-tech apparatus to rearrange and splice DNA molecules and then culture them in fermentation vats to produce synthetic antigens.
Among their proudest breakthrough is a recombinant (recombination of genes) vaccine for hepatitis B, a disease that afflicts an estimated 300 million people worldwide. It is an achievement worthy, one might think, of the Nobel Prize. Cuba also produced the first recombinant vaccine for meningitis B.
The world's most advanced anti-coagulant for breaking up blood clots in heart attack victims was also designed and is produced here. It is called recombinant streptokinase and a Heber-Biotec flyer proclaims that the medicine will restore ""fluidity in the bloodstream" adding, "There is only one recombinant streptokinase with proven clinical results. Its immediate administration can save lives."
When York Medical, a Toronto-based pharmaceutical company announced plans to form a joint venture with Heber-Biotec to market streptokinase in Canada and the U.S. the U.S. State Department threatened York with retaliation.
"Lives are in the balance," Sonia Gonzalez said. "We have some medications that are needed by people in the United States. U.S. pharmaceutical companies produce many high quality medications that we need here. It is an opportunity for an exchange and we should not miss it."
Cuba last year suffered an outbreak of Dengue fever. This is a tropical disease studied at the Pentagon's Fort Detrick Germ Warfare Lab near Frederick Maryland as a possible biological weapon. The U.S. has much expertise in its treatment. But Cuba had to have the Dengue fever medication rushed from Europe.
Gonzalez is uniquely qualified to discuss the pain inflicted by the blockade. A chemical engineer, she has been employed at the center since it was opened by President Fidel Castro July 1, 1986. She is a member of the team that developed the recombinant meningitis B vaccine.
"All the products we produce are applied in the first place in our own country," she said. "Our national health care system provides these vaccines free to our people. We recently reached a decision to inoculate the entire Cuban population under the age of 20 with the vaccine against hepatitis B. We believe it is an important program for the nation." The center has developed an epidermal growth factor cream that stimulates healing for burn victims. Another product is recombinant alpha 2-b Interferon described as a "wide-spectrum therapeutic weapon" for the treatment of several forms of cancer and for victims of HIV-AIDS.
Said Gonzalez, "We have a research team working on HIV-AIDS. We have developed the world's easiest to use kit for the detection of HIV-AIDS and hepatitis. It requires 45 minutes for incubation of the AIDS virus and 50 minutes for incubation of hepatitis B." It is especially important, she said, for impoverished Third World countries ravaged by the diseases.
The center is also in the forefront of veterinary science developing recombinant vaccines against cattle ticks and against diarrhea in livestock. It is doing research in genetic engineering for Cuba's main crops, especially cane sugar.
Every two years, there is a world conference in a selected city of biomedical experts and public health workers struggling against meningitis. This past summer, the location was Baltimore.
"I was one of several researchers from this center who applied to go to this conference," Gonzalez said. "We did not receive our U.S. visas until the day before we had to depart. But we did get there and we shared out knowledge of meningitis with the rest of the world."
Next year, the center, for the sixth time, is hosting a world conference titled "Biotecnologia Habana '97." Experts in molecular biology and biotechnology from all over the world, including the U.S.,will attend and deliver papers on a host of topics.
"The U.S. is so near," she said. "For many years we have had invitations to attend conferences and meetings in the United States, but almost always the State Department refuses to grant us visas. We could get all the chemicals, biological reagents, and scientific apparatus we need cheaper and more quickly if we could buy them in the U.S. But the blockade stands in the way."
Carlos Juan Finlay, the great Cuban researcher who discovered in 1900 that the mosquito carries yellow fever, is revered as the founder of medical science in Cuba. A giant obelisk has been erected to him in Havana and the Carlos Juan Finlay Institute honors him.
"Until our revolution in 1959, medical research was carried on by individuals like Finlay doing what they could," Gonzalez said. "After the revolution, Fidel said that the future of this country is a future of science, especially since Cuba is not rich in oil and mineral resources."
President Fidel Castro's interest, she said, was stirred when a doctor told him about the promise of interferon in the treatment of cancers. At Castro's insistence, Cuba set up the National Research Center in 1966 with a strong focus on the life sciences.
This was followed by the Center for Molecular Immunology and the Finlay Institute and finally by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
All of these institutions are housed in a complex of modern buildings in west Havana called the "Scientific Pole." It also includes hospitals and a branch of the University of Havana.
The workers live in a complex of handsome apartment buildings within walking distance. More are under construction to house workers in this rapidly expanding sector of Cuba's economy.
"I live in that building with my husband and our child," Sonia Gonzalez said pointing at a building across the street. She is expecting her second child soon and the complex has an excellent daycare program and polyclinics.
Gonzalez is the secretary of the Cuban Communist Party at the center. "We have 220 Party militants here in 10 clubs," she said. "We meet once a month to make decisions and discuss how to implement them. We also have a very strong Communist youth organization with more than 400 members." It reflects, she said, the youthfulness of the workers whose average age is 30.
"The Cuban people support our work here," Gonzalez said. "They know it is very expensive. But they also know that everything we produce here is used first to benefit them. This is an achievement of the revolution. There are other countries in Latin America with more resources than we have - Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina - but they do not have centers like this engaged in molecular biology and genetic engineering."
"In the beginning, it seemed like a dream that we could become an important country in biomedical research and production," Gonzalez said. "But now we have very important results. It is because of Fidel's advice and work. Socialism made it possible."
Read the Peoples