A shot in the arm?: Cuba's biotech industry raises hope, suspicion

HAVANA — It was Cuba's $1 billion gamble — to train an army of scientists, develop a sprawling biotech industry and tackle every disease from cancer to AIDS.

The bet paid off, Cuban officials say. Since 1990, Cuban scientists have developed dozens of new treatments and drugs, including the world's only vaccine against meningitis B. This week, Cuban researchers also announced they had developed a cheaper, synthetic form of the vaccine that protects against Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib, a major cause of meningitis and other dangerous infections among infants.

Cuba's products and technologies are now available in at least 40 countries, including Mexico, Iran, India and China.

But some U.S. officials aren't quite ready to applaud. They remain suspicious of Cuba's intentions and reiterate their charge that the socialist nation is running a secret germ-warfare program.

Cuba "has at least a limited, developmental, offensive biological-weapons research-and-development effort and is providing dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states," Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for the Western hemisphere, told a Senate committee in October.

Cuban officials contend that the Bush administration, which has not found evidence to back its charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, lacks credibility to make such an inflammatory claim.

Some others agree.

The Center for Defense Information, or CDI, a private research group based in Washington, toured nine of Cuba's 53 biotech centers and could not find any signs the country was researching or making biological weapons.

"Revelation of a clandestine effort would severely jeopardize Cuba's international market aspirations. I can imagine no countervailing strategic benefit that might override that consideration," concluded John Steinbruner, director for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and a member of the CDI delegation.

The CDI, founded in 1972, is a watchdog organization that has exposed wasteful defense spending, questioned the deployment of the MX mobile missile system and exposed the Pentagon's so-called black projects, considered so secret that their budgets are often hidden from public view.

The group's delegates to Cuba included retired four-star Gen. Charles Wilhelm, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command; bioweapons policy experts; former U.S. assistant secretaries of state and defense; a leading infectious-disease specialist and senior research scientists.

In May, delegation members published a 50-page report on their visit to Cuba. In it, they said that while the germ-warfare accusations were difficult to prove or disprove, they didn't believe the socialist government was hiding anything.

Instead, the delegation reported, the Cuban government appears to be serious about health care. Members pointed out that Cuba's infant-mortality rate is low — at 6.2 deaths per 1,000 births, versus 7 per 1,000 in the United States. Its life-expectancy rate is 76 years of age — the same as that of the United States. And, thanks to the biotech industry, Cubans are immunized against 13 major diseases. "Today, Cuba is probably the most vaccinated society on earth," the CDI report said.

Cuban scientists say they are proud of their accomplishments, rooted in a decades-old commitment to develop biotechnology. Texas scientists from M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston played a role, according to the U.S.-based Cuba Biotechnology.

The scientists visited the island in the 1980s and told the Cubans that biotechnology held great promise. By 1996, the Cuban government had pumped more than $1 billion into the field.

Today, about 10,000 Cuban scientists and other specialists work in the industry. One of their crown jewels is the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a 753,474-square-foot complex in western Havana. It employs 1,245 people and researches how to use molecular biology — including recombinant DNA techniques — to devise new drugs and treatments.

The center and others on the island have filed for patents on at least 150 new medicines and technologies to be used to treat cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

Cuban drugs are now sold in 50 countries around the world but aren't available in the United States because of the U.S. ban on trade with the socialist regime.

One example is PPG, or polycosanol, made from sugarcane wax. Cuba markets the drug worldwide, saying it reduces unhealthful fats and promotes a healthy heart. Cuban scientists also market Epidermal Growth Factor, or EGF, used to treat burn patients, and melagenina, used to treat a skin disorder.

Another obstacle to expansion, Cubans say, is that the socialist government doesn't have enough money to fully develop and test all its new drugs.

"There are more ideas and lines of investigation in the country than we can finance," said Manuel Raices of Cuba's Business Development Group, which seeks foreign funding for medical innovations.

Cuban officials blame the trade ban for their failure to obtain much of the financing they need. But they have pushed ahead, signing trade or transfer of technology pacts with dozens of countries.

The United States has granted only one license for a Cuban product since the embargo. In 1999, British pharmaceutical company Smith Kline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline, persuaded Washington to exempt a vaccine discovered by Cuba, which was the world's first vaccine for the child-killing disease meningitis B.

Glaxo now is doing advanced tests on the Cuban vaccine in Belgium, Britain and Spain and hopes eventually to market it in the U.S.

Intrigued by such advances, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Princeton University and other schools have visited and studied at Cuban biotech centers. But the trade ban has severely limited scientific exchanges, said Dr. Gustavo Kouri, director of the Pedro Kouri Institute, founded by his father in 1937.

The Kouri center, a 20-building complex outside Havana, evaluates and does clinical trials on Cuban vaccines and antiretroviral HIV/AIDS treatments.

Kouri, an expert on tropical diseases, has headed the center for 25 years. "For a small country, Cuba has accomplished great things," he said from his office, decorated with dozens of diplomas and awards. But the trade ban doesn't make things easy, he said.

For starters, Cuba has difficulty obtaining U.S. medical equipment, he said. "In general we buy from suppliers in Europe and Japan, and that means the transportation costs are enormous, sometimes more than the product."

U.S. law allows individual sales of medicine to Cuba, but U.S. companies haven't plunged into the business, and many blame excessive U.S. red tape.

Critics say socialism is responsible for any shortcomings in Cuba's health-care system. The system is in a shambles, according to Dessy Mendoza Rivero, a Cuban doctor who was arrested in 1997 after telling a Miami radio station that the government was covering up a dengue-fever epidemic.

There are shortages of some medicines in Cuba, conceded Raices of the business development group, but the government does the best it can with its budget. So if faced with the choice of developing a new drug or buying parts for an ambulance, it will do the latter, he said.

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Cancer drug licensing sought

HAVANA — A California company is seeking U.S. permission to license a promising Cuban cancer drug that is barred from the United States by trade sanctions, Cuban scientists said at a biotechnology conference this week.

CancerVax Corp., based in Carlsbad, Calif., wants to conduct joint research on cancer vaccines being developed in Havana, said Luis Herrera, the director of Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

CancerVax said it has signed letters of intent with Cuba's Center for Molecular Biology (CIM) and Canada's YM Biosciences relating to the license of an antibody that can slow or halt tumors by acting on the body's immune system.

The monoclonal antibody, which targets a cancer-growth factor known as the HER-1 receptor, has been tested in Canada for head and neck cancer with positive results, and is undergoing trials in China and India, CIM director Augustin Lage said.

A definitive agreement on U.S. licensing for this technology will depend on government approval, including a license from the U.S. Treasury's office that enforces trade sanctions on Cuba.

The Cuban monoclonal antibody, combined with radiotherapy, has doubled the rate of cancer remission in trials in Cuba and Canada, Lage said.