Cuba Cutting `World Class' Trail in Biotech Research
Well-funded government labs enable Castro's cash-starved nation to produce high-quality vaccines and medications for a global market
By Gary Marx, Tribune foreign correspondent
Published December 18, 2005
HAVANA -- On the outskirts of Havana sits a cluster of drab buildings that are part of an effort to propel Cuba to the forefront of biotechnology even as its population struggles with blackouts, shortages and crumbling infrastructure.
Known as the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, or CIGB, the institute is one of 52 government facilities dedicated to human, animal and agricultural research that have recorded a string of successes.
Using more than $1 billion in state funding, Cuban scientists have produced a hepatitis B vaccine sold in more than 30 countries and streptokinase, a potent enzyme that dissolves blood clots and improves the survival rate of heart attack victims. The country also makes recombinant interferon that strengthens the immune system of cancer patients, and a meningitis B vaccine.
In the pipeline are products ranging from an injection that closes ulcers and improves circulation in diabetics to vaccines against cholera and hepatitis C, according to Cuban officials.
"We've been very impressed by the biotech industry in Cuba," said Anne Walsh, vice president for communications at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. "It's world class."
Despite Cuba's success in the laboratory, some experts question whether a poor country should be spending scarce resources on research. The production of milk, beef and other foods has fallen even as its scientists embark on years-long efforts to produce genetically modified rice, corn and other crops that are disease resistant.
Criticism from Florida
"Thinking big in the context of widespread needs and shortages is irresponsible," said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
There also is a question of whether Cuba is using its biotech industry to develop biological weapons. The U.S. State Department leveled the bioweapons charge against Cuba in 2002 but in August softened its stance and said the evidence was inconclusive.
But even the suggestion that Cuban scientists may be involved in a weapons program infuriates Carlos Borroto, CIGB's deputy director.
"Our biotech [industry] is so public, so transparent," he said. "The people who are working here, you could [threaten to] kill them and they would not produce a bioweapon."
Borroto and other officials said the island's biotechnology sector already has played an important role in improving health care in Cuba while also providing low-cost vaccines and other medicines to developing countries.
The industry is slowly becoming an important revenue source for this cash-starved nation, earning an estimated $300 million a year, officials say.
"We have some advantage because our products are the same quality as the rest of the world, and most of the time they are cheaper," said Sergio Perez Talavera, sales manager in Asia for Herber Biotec SA, CIGB's commercial branch.
Cuba's biotechnology industry started from scratch more than two decades ago after visiting American scientists met with Cuban President Fidel Castro and told him about the potential benefits of interferon in cancer treatment.
The nation's first biotechnology laboratory opened in 1981 with six researchers, and the government poured money into the sector even after Cuba's economy took a nosedive following the collapse of the Soviet Union, then the island's main benefactor.
Today, thousands of scientists work in what is known as the Polo Cientifico, a series of facilities that include the Finlay Institute, developer of the meningitis B vaccine, and the National Center for Bioreagents, a huge plant whose leading product is the hepatitis B vaccine.
Cuba's crown jewel
The crown jewel of Cuba's biotech industry is CIGB, a collection of manufacturing facilities, greenhouses and research laboratories.
This month CIGB played host to Havana's annual biotechnology conference, drawing 250 experts from Germany, Mexico and three dozen other nations to discuss ways to improve agricultural production.
Among the Cuban scientists presenting their research at the conference was Rolando Moran, who has spent more than a decade trying to genetically modify the sweet potato to resist the weevil larva, a ravenous pest.
Moran said his work is still in the experimental stage but hopes it can someday increase crop yields. He praised the government for supporting his research but said funds are tight.
Jose de la Fuente, a former top CIGB scientist who is an Oklahoma State University professor, said the growth of Cuba's biotech industry is threatened by another problem: the intrusion of politics into science.
He said many top Cuban researchers studied and worked in Europe, Japan and the United States but authorities are increasingly preventing Cuban researchers from traveling abroad if they do not support Castro's one-party system.
"This does not create a good atmosphere for good science," said de la Fuente, who left Cuba in 1999 after losing his job at CIGB.
Even under optimal conditions, it would be tough for impoverished Cuba to compete in the global arena against the pharmaceutical heavyweights.
Yet, while Western pharmaceutical companies focus mostly on producing drugs for North America, Europe and other wealthy regions, Cuba's efforts have centered on developing vaccines and other products for internal use and for export to the Third World.
"The U.S. companies are not that interested in tackling diseases that are not blockbusters," said Francois Arcand, director general of the Spanish company ERA Biotech. "Cuba is in a different world. They are doing a niche strategy. They are going where there is less resistance."
Cuba's biomedical industry also has formed partnerships in India, China and other nations, which like Cuba are developing medicines for far less than it would cost to purchase the same products abroad.
But Perez, the CIGB sales representative, said Cuba is looking increasingly toward breaking into Europe and other lucrative markets.
The effort will be costly and difficult, despite Cuba's biomedical advances.
"A good patented product can surpass the sales of all our products combined, and this is our main target," Perez said. "This is a very, very hard task."