A misty mountain landscape in Cuba Photo Credit: Pixabay

Thawing relations with Cuba reveal possible scientific benefits

Scientific collaboration with Cuba has been steadily growing since the Obama administration announced the restoration of diplomatic relations at the end of 2014. For decades, collaboration between researchers had been limited due to U.S. policy, and citizens from both countries were unable to benefit from discoveries and innovations during this time due to trade restrictions. Travel to Cuba for research and educational purposes was one of the first renewed types of travel. Since then, a variety of scientists, doctors, and engineers have been making the trip south to collaborate and innovate with their Cuban counterparts. This exchange of ideas is expanding technology and innovation, leading to better products and services for citizens in both countries.

Map of Cuba Photo Credit: Wikimedia


Novel medical discoveries could lead to new and improved treatments

Cuba boasts robust medical and biotechnology industries, both of which have helped develop a variety of medicines and treatments previously restricted to Cuba and its few global trading partners. One more promising example is a lung cancer vaccine called Cimavax. The vaccine is given to patients with a specific type of lung cancer and is intended to slow the disease or prevent it from recurring by neutralizing epidermal growth factor, a protein which helps the cancer cells grow. This is a type of treatment known as immunotherapy. Only a few treatments of this type are currently available to patients, so expanding options in this area would be lifesaving. It will also increase possible combinations with other types of treatment for this cancer, which include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and the targeting of specific genes, helping physicians better tailor cancer treatment to each patient.    

While the vaccine has been used for treatment in Cuba for five years, U.S. clinicians and researchers warn that previous Cuban clinical trials have only included a small number of patients. However, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo recently received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a larger, joint clinical trial with a Cuban counterpart. The drug’s effectiveness appears to be limited in the small number of patients who have been treated with it, but doctors are optimistic that its effectiveness may also be amplified when coupled with other cancer treatments available in the U.S.

Cuba also boasts innovative treatments in other areas of medicine like Hepatitis B vaccines, pesticides, and therapies for macular degeneration. Almost 700,000 people die annually due to complications associated with Hepatitis B, so a vaccine could have a strong global impact. As the most populated island in the Caribbean, it is key for evaluating and combatting infectious diseases. A robust monitoring system and well established medical responses have kept infection rates for communicable diseases much lower than other nearby island nations. “Working together more closely will allow scientists from Cuba and the United States to better share data, identify and monitor outbreaks of infectious disease, and develop more coherent responses,” said Alan Leshner, the American Association for the Advancement of Science chief executive until 2015.

Well protected ecosystems provide a model for conservation

Cuba has been found to be a model for preservation efforts when it comes to biodiversity. The island boasts some of the best coral reefs in the world, as well as large numbers of unique plants, reptiles, and amphibians. Some of the preservation success is due to low population density on the island, with most urbanization focused to the coasts.

Iguana Photo Credit: Pixabay

However, there have also been concerted government efforts to protect fragile ecosystems-20 percent of the country is under some form of environmental protection. “I don’t think there is any major ecosystem that doesn’t have some area protected, so it’s a pretty good system,” says Douglas Stotz, an ornithologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.  These well preserved ecosystems can serve as models for how biodiversity native to this region can be preserved and restored.  The heightened biodiversity present closer to the equator, where Cuba is located, are important not only for ecological balance and the food chain, they have also yielded a variety of important products and medicines. Healthy, robust coral reefs are essential to healthy oceans and also help buffer coastline against the rising tides and intensifying hurricanes associated with climate change. US conservation efforts in areas like Florida and the Gulf of Mexico will benefit greatly from being able to study the model ecosystems and strong conservation techniques present in Cuba.  

A tradition of science

Much of the emphasis on science and technology was fueled by the Cuban government, namely Fidel Castro. “‘The Cuban Academy of Science has been in existence for now about 150 years.’ In one of his very first speeches after the revolution, Castro said, ‘The future of Cuba is the people of science.’ Cuba was going to diversify itself from being an agricultural economy to a medical, technical economy,” said chemistry Nobel Laureate and former scientific diplomat, Dr. Peter Agre.

Cuban National Capitol Building: Home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences Photo Credit: Wikipedia

While discoveries in Cuba emerged even under the weight of embargo from the U.S., science in Cuba also stands to benefit greatly from renewed and expanded relations. Researchers on the island working in scientific fields especially strong or prevalent in North America have not kept pace with their American colleagues, often still using outdated techniques and equipment. For example, botanists and conservation biologists are eager to get improved genetic techniques onto the island, hoping to advance taxonomic cataloging and evolutionary studies of the island’s incredible biodiversity. All of this optimism is still tempered by the fact that only some of the restrictions have been lifted thus far, with trade still mostly embargoed.

However, scientists on both sides are hopeful that relations will continue to thaw, yielding new scientific opportunities. Collaborations between the two countries will likely lead to new and improved medical treatments, new products and innovations will likely blossom out of two strong biotech industries finally working together, and both countries will respond better to the coming challenges of climate change with more cohesive and informed conservation efforts.  All of these improve quality of life and life span of Americans and Cubans alike.  

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