When Dr. R. Lee Clark, then president of the University of Texas’ famed M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, visited the island in November 1980 as part of a delegation, the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro wanted to hear about the latest advance in cancer treatment.
Clark said it was interferon — a naturally occurring protein that inhibits virus development in cells. At the time interferon was thought of as something of a wonder drug that could be used as an anti-viral and for fighting various cancers.
Curiosity piqued, Castro dispatched two Cuban doctors to M.D. Anderson for training, and then in 1981 sent a small group of Cuban doctors to Finland where Dr. Kari Cantell, a virologist, had perfected a method of producing and isolating interferon in the laboratory.
Many clinical trials around the world used the expensive Finnish interferon, but Castro decided that Cuba needed its own supply. He set up six Cuban researchers in a small laboratory created in a one-story protocol house and tasked them with creating interferon from human blood.
“He used to visit the scientists almost every day. He would often come by very late at night,” said Merardo Pujol Ferrer, business development director for Heber Biotec, the marketing company for Cuban biotech products.
Surprisingly, the six scientists quickly succeeded in producing their first batch of leukocyte interferon. The Cuban interferon got its first test under fire in 1981, when an epidemic of dengue fever, which killed more than 100 children, gripped the country. Although it had never been done before, the decision was made to test interferon’s effects on hemorrhagic dengue.
A study of 300 patients concluded that alpha interferon used early to treat children could prevent hemorrhagic complications.
From the modest experiment in the protocol house, Cuba’s Center for Biological Research was established in 1982. It later became part of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), which was created in 1986 with around 300 employees.
“This center is big, but I hope the scientific results that are obtained will also be great,” said Castro at the CIGB opening. Since then it has become far larger, and now employs more than 1,700 workers.
A scientific nucleus that includes several other research institutes has grown up around it in Havana. Across the country there are now 21 research centers and 70 factories under the umbrella of BioCubaFarma, the enterprise that groups together Cuban biotech and pharmaceutical industries.
“We were talking about creating a true revolution in science with cutting-edge products,” said Manuel R. Raíces Pérez-Castañeda, a biologist and CIGB business development director.
Cuban scientists were sent aboard to study in Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union and other countries.
The interferon research became something of an obsession for Castro, who often took a personal interest in scientific and agricultural endeavors, including a dairy cow named White Udder whose daily milk production earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, and a so-called miracle plant called moringa.
To see how Cuba was doing, Castro invited Cantell to Cuba in 1982 and Castro himself briefed him on the scientists’ work, said Pujol. “He was here with us just that once,” he added.
In Cantell’s book, The Story of Interferon: The Ups and Downs in the Life of a Scientist, he writes that when he visited the island, “I saw the new institute and was astonished by its huge size. The interferon seed had grown into a biotechnology tree.”
In later years, interferon didn’t turn out to be quite the miracle drug it was initially thought to be, but it is still used in the treatment of some cancers.
However, the center made other breakthroughs. In 1988-89, when a diagnostic kit for HIV was developed, it was immediately pushed out to Cuban hospitals and blood banks to prevent HIV transmissions via blood transfusions. A third milestone came when the center developed a vaccine to combat hepatitis B and Cuba began a vaccination campaign in mid-1990.
In 1991, Cuban scientists said, there were 230,000 acute cases of hepatitis B in the country. That had fallen to 100 in 2007, and it’s less than 100 now, said Pujol. “The children in Cuba are the most vaccinated in the world,” he said.
The entire Cuban population under the age of 25 is immunized against hepatitis B, and the vaccine is registered in some three dozen countries. The World Health Organization certified it in 2001.
The center also has developed vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, meningitis B and C, and influenza Type B, as well as products that fight animal and plant diseases, transgenic animals, enzymes for industrial use and medical software. It also is working on engineering more drought-resistant plants, the creation of self-fertilizing crops and the use of enzymes to produce less-fattening sugar.
With limited resources, Pujol said, the Cuban health system had to put an emphasis on prevention and introducing new products as soon as they were developed. “We had to be part of the solution, not the problem,” he said.
But Cuba’s universal access to healthcare isn’t cheap. “Where do you win? By being able to reincorporate patients back into society,” said Raices. “The indirect savings are very great. A hospital can’t operate like a McDonald’s.”
And Cuba also has been forced to take a different approach with its medicines and vaccines. Cuba, Pujol said, realized early on that it couldn’t develop a market-directed approach for its products because it couldn’t compete with pharmaceutical giants with huge marketing budgets. So, rather than trying to advance in the world market by promoting its products, he said, it promotes its results.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi