Cutting-edge biotech in old-world Cuba

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This crumbling, isolated throwback to a cold-war past is probably one of the last places you'd expect to find the sciences of the future.

In Old Havana, wood-paneled pharmacies with crystal chandeliers and empty shelves attract more gawking tourists these days than customers. Food is so scarce that the government urges citizens to grow fruit and vegetables in small urban plots to supplement their diet.

Yet this struggling island nation is chipping away at a longtime US embargo with an unlikely tool: biotechnology.

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More than three years ago, Smith-Kline Beecham PLC - a charter member of the capitalist world's pharmaceutical sector - signed an agreement with Cuba's Finlay Institute to market the institute's vaccine against meningitis B - the world's first.

Now called GlaxoSmithKline PLC, the second-biggest pharmaceutical com-pany in the world is running trials for the Cuban vaccine in Europe and Latin America. If those trials are successful, the company says it plans clinical trials in the US.

For Cuba, the deal was a tiny crack in the door that might open up lucrative new markets for its biotechnology products. Besides earning the impoverished communist country much-needed dollars, it could help build new economic bridges with a world that has become a much lonelier place since the collapse of Cuba's old ally, the Soviet Union.

"We have neither money nor time," says Concepcion Campa, the scientist who developed the vaccine and the president of Finlay, Cuba's main research and manufacturing center for human vaccines. With GlaxoSmithKline, which holds a 7 percent share of the world pharmaceutical market, Cuba gains access to marketing heft and a vast commercial network.

The market for such a vaccine is "hundreds of millions of dollars," according to Moncef Slaoui, a senior vice president at GSK Biologicals, the Belgian-based vaccine division of GlaxoSmithKline. Cuba currently earns just $100 million a year from its total pharmaceutical and biotechnology exports.

The official line on science's value

When meeting foreign visitors, Cuban officials like to quote something Fidel Castro said in 1960 just after he marched into power: "The future of our homeland must be that of men of science."

Ironically, the 42-year-old US trade embargo might actually have spurred the island's pursuit to science. Imposed in 1960 by President Kennedy after Mr. Castro infuriated the US by nationalizing $1 billion worth of US-owned property in Cuba, the embargo remains in place decades later.

Unable to import some of the medicines it wanted, Cuba began making its own generic drugs through reverse engineering - piracy by another name. From there sprang a state pharmaceutical industry and later, a biotechnology offshoot.

Cuban officials say the country now produces 80 percent of the types of drugs and medicines used by its 11 million people, though the empty shelves in pharmacies suggest the actual shortfall in quantity may be greater.

The healthcare strategy is straightforward: The government develops the drugs and vaccines according to the demands of Cubans. It then tests them and dispenses them across the population through a network of neighborhood family doctors, polyclinics, and hospitals.

"Cuban science does not produce as much in peer-reviewed English-language scientific journals as its size [would merit], but [there is] more input into social practice," the application of science in a real-world setting, says Sergio Jorge Pastrana, who handles international relations for the 142-year-old Cuban Academy of Sciences.

In the early 1990s, when the economy's implosion got so bad that the average Cuban adult lost 20 pounds, the government continued to set aside 1.5 percent of gross national product each year for scientific research. A total of $1 billion between 1992 and 1996 went toward creating a no-frills, centralized version of Silicon Valley, the Western Havana Scientific Pole. In the mid-1990s, crippled by the economic crisis, Cuba sent its scientists to labs in Sweden, Spain, and Germany so they could continue working.

Today, Cuba's economy is recovering, thanks to emergency liberalization measures that promote tourism and allow Cubans to start limited private businesses and hold and use the US dollar.

At the Western Havana Scientific Pole, scientists at 52 institutes are researching vaccines and therapies for AIDS and Alzheimer's, among others. There are some cooperation agreements - for product sales, joint ventures, contract manufacture and research - with entities in Latin America, China, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Australia. Cuba has filed applications for 500 patents around the world.

Embargo blocks biggest market

But the biggest market has so far eluded it: Although the US has granted Cuba 24 patents, the embargo has so far prevented it from selling any of the products in America.

There is also some biotechnology research in agriculture, but it has not been commercialized, Cuban officials say, partly for fear that genetically modified food crops might hurt that famed Cuban export - cigars.

Stories of frustration abound. Scientists have limited access to Western journals and can't always afford the latest equipment. They are often denied US visas for scientific exchange.

One Finlay Institute scientist who works with a mass spectrometer, a machine for analyzing biochemicals, says he can't get a US visa to attend conferences to discuss the cutting-edge technology. Another researcher shares his subscription to the journal Nature with 20 colleagues.

They are also abysmally paid, especially when compared with workers in the growing tourist industry, where cash registers ring with dollars, not the Cuban peso. As a desperate Cuba opened its arms to tourists in recent years, a topsy-turvy parallel economy emerged where a chambermaid earns more in tips than a biotech scientist's monthly salary of around $20.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle to Cuba's biotechnology plan is the political climate in the US, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.

On a recent morning, Luis Herrera, wearing a white lab coat, greeted US journalists visiting his Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. "Did you already visit the place where the weapons are made here?" he asks cheekily, with a nod to the deep suspicion with which the US views Cuba's biotechnology aspirations. "We don't have money to do that," he says.

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