Biotech for all

Spring 2004

Westminster Conference highlights the advances in health brought about by Cuba’s scientific revolution By Steve Wilkinson

Cuba’s biotechnology industry is producing only one variety of weapon and that is the kind that fights human disease. That was the clear message brought by three of Cuba’s leading scientists who visited Britain in March.

Led by Dr Agustin Lage, the head of Cuba’s Centre of Molecular Immunology, the three specialists gave a conference on their work at Westminster on March 16th organised by Dr Ian Gibson MP, chair of the All Party Cuba Group.

More than 100 prominent scientists, academics and businessmen attended.

Two days later, at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs in Chatham House, before an invited audience of leading politicians, specialists and opinion makers the trio also gave a special seminar on the topic: Cuba’s Biotechnology: Is it a threat? The answer was of course and unequivocal no.

“If we wanted to, we could produce bio weapons,” said Dr Lage, “In fact, any country with a university and handful of scientists could do that, but we are not doing anything of the kind. To produce any weapon of mass destruction of this nature would be completely against the ethics of our revolution.”

Dr Lage and his colleagues, Dr Carlos Borretto, deputy director of the Cuban Genetic Engineering Centre and Dr Pedro A. Valdes-Sosa, founder and deputy director of the Cuban Neuroscience Centre, explained in great detail the extent of their work and the incredible advances made in Cuban medical science over the past three decades.

From being a nascent industry in the early 1970s, Cuban biotech has grown to be a multi-million dollar industry expected to produce more than 200 new products in the next ten years.

These include new vaccines against head and neck cancer, a treatment of foot ulcers that afflict diabetes sufferers, new treatments for brain tumours, a lung cancer vaccine, a breast cancer vaccine and even possibly a vaccine against AIDS.

In addition, Cuba has a method of producing monoclonal antibodies that are used in many kinds of research and in vaccine production and has been able to market this technology successfully to many countries including China, India and Iran.

It is the sale of this equipment to Iran (one of the member countries in the George Bush’s so-called Axis of Evil) that has irked the United States.

Dr Carlos Borretto showed a slide of this factory and explained that it could not be used to make bio weapons.

“We are designing and building the factory. I can tell you that anyone looking at this picture who knew anything about the science would be able to say immediately that is not a weapons factory. Of course, you could reassemble the parts to make bio-weapons if you wished. But that is clearly not what this factory is for and we would never build such a thing anywhere.”

Rather than produce weapons, it was clear from these clearly dedicated and highly qualified men that Cuba was doing all it can to develop not only its own economy through the application of science to the field of saving human lives, but also to enhance the health and quality of lives of people all over the globe.

Cuban Neuroscience

Dr Valdes Sosa of the Neuroscience Centre gave details of a field of work that has been hitherto unreported in the UK. While many people already know about Cuba’s unique vaccines against Meningitis B and Hepatitis B, few know that Cuban diagnostic technology in the field of neurology is world class.

Cuba developed its own microcomputer in the early 1970s, had its own EEG system for monitoring the brain by 1972, had its own brain scanner by 1990 and developed micro surgery apparatus by 1992.

Cuba developed a system of neurology labs throughout the country and uses its own diagnostic technology in these labs to monitor and analyse the population. The equipment that Cuba makes is now exported to Canada, Spain, Mexico, China, Argentina, Brazil, the UK and South Africa. The equipment is manufactured in cooperation with a Spanish joint venture partner and the profits made go directly back into funding more research.

This is what Dr Lage calls ‘the loop’:

“What we have created are research institutions that are linked to manufacturing plants and are able, not only to create new products but also to build the manufacturing capacity to take advantage of them. The revenues earned from the marketing of the product then goes straight back into creating more products. This is unique in the world, I think.”

Among the research programmes that Dr Sosa is directing at the moment is one in which a new application for the treatment of strokes is being assessed and another r in which national survey of the disabled in the entire country.

In the disabled persons survey, the whole of the country’s 366,864 disable people have been visited by their family doctor and interviewed. The results have been fed back to Dr Sosa’s centre and now Cuba has a map of the occurrence of different kinds of disability in the whole of the country. This is of great use in determining the causes of different types of disability and planning the provision of care and treatment.

A unique techniques pioneered by Dr Sosa is a method of detecting hearing loss in infants. Currently in the UK, hearing loss in infants can be detected at 20 months, but in Cuba they can detect it as early as 17 months. The early detection of this problem is crucial if doctors are to be able to intervene surgically to cure it. Too late and profound deafness in later years is inevitable.

This method of screening is now being used in Colombia, Mexico, China and Venezuela.

Dr Sosa is currently carrying out research into the occurrence of autism and dementia with the hope of developing new strategies to cope with these problems. Interestingly, the occurrence of autism in Cuba has been found to be significantly lower than in the UK and work is being done to try and establish why this might be.

Cuba’s genetic engineering

Dr Carlos Borretto of Cuba’s agricultural biotechnology centre went to great lengths to explain the nature of Cuba’s genetic engineering project. Obviously acutely aware of the controversy that surrounds GM crops in the UK, he was emphatic:

“Public confidence is high in our biotechnology and we not wan to lose that support from our people. You can be sure that before anything we do is released into the environment it will be safe.”

Dr Borretto showed slides of the way in which Cuban GM crops are tested. Unlike in the UK where open fields are used, Cuban GM crops are grown in special greenhouses that completely sealed from environment so that no genetically modified material can escape to the outside.

In addition, Cuba’s approach to GM is different from that which has been taken by the big multinationals. Cuba is not interested in patenting the plants so that they can control the sale of seeds. Instead, Dr Borretto’s institute is dedicated to producing strains of Cuba’s staple products that are truly resistant to diseases and whose performance in terms of yields is enhanced.

The work already done has produced a GM strain of tobacco that is resistant to blue mould, but ironically this has not been accepted.

“When we told the big tobacco buyers of our product they turned it down because cigar lovers would not buy cigars made form a GM plant!,” said Dr Borretto, “I find this position somewhat strange, given the known dangers of smoking tobacco, that people should be concerned at the risk of GM!”

Cuba also has GM potatoes, rice and maize under trial. But most exciting is the development of tobacco plants that produce human monoclonal antibodies in their leaves. Currently, all the monoclonal antibodies that are manufactured in the world come from specially bred mice. It takes a hundred thousand mice to produce on kilo of antibody material. However with the new plant production the possibility will be to produce much more material much more quickly in a way that is more animal friendly.

And what of Cuba’s famous transgenic fish?

Dr Borretto explains: “We produced a transgenic tilapia, a type of edible freshwater fish, that grows twice as fast and sues less food. We genetically modified its stomach to be more efficient in absorbing nutrients from food. We have had this fish for 8 years now, and the story has been around the world that we are already eating this fish and selling it to the population. But this is absolutely untrue, the fish has not escaped the laboratory and we have no intention of marketing it. That would be a public relations disaster! We don’t want to be the first to release a transgenic fish into the world!”

However, the fish could yet yield a reward for Cuba. The research has discovered how the new fish absorbs nutrients more efficiently and Cuban scientists have now isolated the enzyme that triggers the effect.

“In other words, we can now manufacture an enzyme that can be given to normal fish that will make them perform like the genetically modified ones. So here we have used GM to make non GM organisms perform better. This is very exciting.”

Exciting just about sums up what is a tremendous achievement for a Third World country. The overall impression received was that perhaps the US opposition to Cuba’s science is really rooted in envy. For it is clear that the only danger Cuba poses to the US is in the field of competition in the marketplace

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