BioWorld International Correspondent
HAVANA - Every five years, the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones (CENIC), Cuba's premier scientific research institute, hosts an international science conference.
Its 2005 meeting, held here at the end of June in the main conference center, the Palacio de Convenciones, marked the 40th anniversary of CENIC's founding.
The congress center is close to the West Havana Scientific Pole, a network of research institutes, higher education institutions and hospitals established during 1992. Many members of Cuba's biotechnology community work in the area. Those who attended the meeting had plenty to celebrate.
For a country of just 11.2 million people, suffering the effects of the ongoing U.S. trade embargo, Cuba has long punched above its weight in biotechnology. Its achievements in vaccine development, in particular, have put the country on the map and conferred on it leadership status in the developing world. Cuba has entered joint projects or completed technology transfer agreements with several countries, including India, China, Malaysia and Iran.
Its partnership with Iran has led to accusations that it was facilitating biological weapons development, an issue which the conference organizers addressed.
"The U.S. government has accused our scientific community of working on biological weapons," said Pavel Diaz Gonzalez de Mendoza, secretary of the conference organizing committee, who opened the meeting. "We will never use research against the health of humanity."
Cuba's biotechnology research primarily is applied and focused on its own public health needs, although export sales of its products have become an important source of foreign currency. Jose Luis Fernandez Yero, director of Cuba's Immunoassay Center in Havana, said ongoing development of its prenatal and neonatal screening equipment and software now is supported by sales throughout Latin America.
Concepcion Campa Heurgo, president and director general of the Finlay Institute in Havana, said Cuba is engaging in industrial production of 13 antigens and nine vaccines.
"Twenty years ago, we didn't produce any vaccine under these conditions," she said. The Finlay Institute's pipeline includes vaccines against cholera, Dengue fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis C, AIDS and tuberculosis. The cholera vaccine - a single-dose, oral product - is intended for use during epidemics and crisis settings. Heurgo told BioWorld International that initial trials involving healthy volunteers have been completed in Cuba and said that discussions with several African states are under way. The main challenge, she said, is getting the vaccine to work in populations that might already be immunocompromised due to HIV infection.
Luis Herrera Martinez, director of the Havana-based Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center, said that the success of the country's hepatitis B vaccination program means that incidence of the disease is among the lowest in the Americas. His center is, he said, moving from copying existing products and reprofiling old drugs to discovery and patenting new molecular entities. "This year we will have 10 new products," he said.
Cuba's scientific community, he said, must continue to engage in new areas of research, "so that we keep our country at the vanguard of biotechnology and we insert ourselves in first world markets."
In recognition of Cuba's growing prominence in biotechnological research, Rolf Zinkernagel, the Swiss Nobel Laureate, was a keynote speaker at the meeting, and he accepted the position of honorary president of the Cuban Society of Immunology.