21st century medicine

Autumn 2007

Quality vaccines and pioneering anti-cancer research has catapulted Cuba into the premier league of medical science and biotechnology

In the world of scientific invention and medical breakthroughs we have long been conditioned to assume that a few western nations - usually the US, UK, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries - are the source of just about every exciting advance in medicine.

The western media has reinforced the notion that our scientists are the world’s best with a virtual monopoly in the field of discovery and invention, and that the rest of the world is just trailing behind.

Hence there is a built-in bias and scepticism in dealing with scientific discoveries and advances achieved by non-western countries. The transfer of technology and science is according to this view - a one-way street. Advanced countries teach and training the Third World follows.

Starting out with this culture of western scientific hegemony, we can start to understand why governments, scientists and the man in the street find it hard to believe that a small country undeveloped like Cuba, could be ranked with the world’s best, not only in primary healthcare - but also in medical research, developing vaccines, and in tackling both HIV/AIDS and cancer.

In the case of several medical patents from Cuba, it is scientific expertise from this island’s burgeoning biotech sector that is now the subject of joint ventures agreements to develop and market in western countries including cutting-edge new treatments for cancer.


The success of Cuban health system is anchored on the prevention of disease as its first priority. All babies and young children receive immunisation from a raft of potential killers.

Cuba has suffered a number of epidemics of meningitis B. At one time there was no vaccine. Cuba set about producing one. Necessity became the mother of invention and the Finlay Institute in Havana - a centre of vaccine production - discovered an effective meningitis B vaccine in the 1980s, which remains to this day the only commercially developed vaccine.

Encouraged by this success a huge investment was made in the mid-80s to establish a Centre for Biotechnology (CIGB) opened in 1986, and later the creation of the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in 1994.

During this period of the cold war, aid from the superpowers, both US and USSR, tended to be squandered, siphoned off and contributed very little towards real development of the Third World. In case of Cuba, Soviet aid was effectively channelled into biotechnology and the consolidation of their health system.

CIGB has produced anti-burn and skin regeneration cream for tragic cases of people seriously injured by fire and a version of Hepatitis B vaccine that has widely been hailed as more effective than same vaccine produced by Smith, Kline& Glaxo.

By the 1990s, Cuban medical products were being exported to over 50 countries - to China, India, Russia and South America, but were all denied access to the western markets by a combination of complex drug protocols, hostility from the pharmaceutical giants, and pressures from the US trade embargo.

However, a number of agreements were signed with York Medical in Canada in the late 1990s, for the development of international clinical trials for six Cuban products and their eventual marketing in Europe and North America.


In the search of new medical breakthroughs in tackling terminal diseases, biotechnology led by the US has resulted in science being hijacked by commercial pressures, colossal investments, and intense market speculation. Biotech companies with their listing on the stock exchange are highly secretive about their product in what has become a billion dollar industry.

Cuban biotech is a very different species that has been nurtured and developed totally within the public sector, without any kind of investor speculation. Havana’s top scientists are poorly paid by comparison with their western counterparts but research director at CIM Dr Roland Perez points out “ we are highly motivated with a strong moral commitment to help humanity. Our science is the motor of a knowledge-based economy here in Cuba” [ interview for ‘Swimming against the Tide’ documentary, see insert]. Perez adds that they have no brain-drain of scientists, unlike UK and other countries, where scientists seek better opportunities and prospects abroad.

In western countries, the scientist is far removed from any final product - if indeed there is any final product - as it will depend on the vacillations of the market and profitability as to whether the scientific formula will ever end up as a medication.

The process is almost the exact opposite in Cuba. Research scientists, development, quality control and testing are all part of an integrated process with laboratories and production plants all under the one roof or rather within the walls of one institution. This innovative Cuban approach is known as ‘closing the circle’ from research>development>marketing>export.

Professor Michael Levin, head of the Paediatric Unit, St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington who has visited Cuba several times, observed that despite their economic problems, “they have excellent laboratories, their doctors and scientists have maintained world-class standards.”

Will UK cancer patients be treated with anti-cancer drugs from Cuba

by 2010?

After highly successful clinical trials, cancer patients in China are receiving cancer treatment based on Theracim Hr3 formula discovered and developed at CIM laboratories in Cuba. Two therapeutics from CIM have aroused great interest and led to agreements for manufacturing in China, and India under Cuban scientific supervision.

In Europe and Canada international clinical trials are ongoing with positive results so far. Even one US company, Cancervax, has been granted a State Department waiver from provisions of the US embargo in order to carry out clinical trials for the US market.

Dr Normando Iznaga, CIM’s head of business development marketing (interviewed for the documentary) is convinced that the Cuban treatment is revolutionising the treatment of cancer. ”We are now targeting cancer as chronic disease. Not many countries in the world can target cancer like Cuba - no longer terminal, a patient can live with it for life”. .

The IPK-Institute of Tropical Medicine is working with CIGB Centre of Biotechnology on the development of an effective Aids vaccine.

Currently billions of dollars are being poured into North American and European medical research labs but with only meagre results, yet Cuba with a fraction of that investment has established an impressive good track record in new drug discovery.

This alternative model of medical innovation and pharmaceutical production is readily dismissed by most economists as a quaint aberration in today’s world, so clearly out of synchronization with the globalised economy. But it is results that count. The Cuban record of product innovation: 26 inventions with more than 100 international patents already granted, speaks for itself.

Watch ‘Swimming against the Tide’ - available now

Tom Fawthrop’s informative new film which includes interviews with staff at the CIM as well as family doctors, surgeons, US students at the Latin America School of Medicine is available from the CSC office for £13 including p+p.

(picture)Cuba’s Centre for Molecular Immunology(CIM) was built in 1994 following massive investment in Cuba’s emerging biotechnology industries

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