Issue Date: April 24, 2017
Improving prospects for chemists in Cuba
When Daniel García Rivera got his Ph.D. in chemistry in 2007, he had a difficult choice to make. Stay in Germany, where he had spent the better part of four years working for a decent salary in a well-equipped university lab. Or return to Cuba, a country he loves but where he faced low pay, limited access to research equipment, and virtually no funding to support his independent research.
García Rivera decided to return home to Cuba, where his family lives—and where, he jokes, the weather is much better than in Germany. But the major driver was his optimism that the situation for chemists in Cuba was improving.
Returning to Cuba is “a very personal decision. Some people like it more outside,” says García Rivera, who has a quick smile and a pragmatic outlook on working in his home country. “I had to find my way in Cuba. It took me a while.”
García Rivera, now a professor at the University of Havana, is one of a handful of young Cuban chemists choosing to establish their careers at home. For decades, most trained chemists left the developing country for better job prospects, but optimism that the Cuban economy is improving is gradually reversing that brain drain. The situation became even more promising in 2015, when former president Barack Obama opened U.S. relations with Cuba after decades of separation. García Rivera and his colleagues hope the change will lead to better access to equipment and specialty chemicals, more funding for research, and, most vitally, improved scientific collaborations with U.S. researchers.
Scientists who have returned to the University of Havana’s Faculty of Chemistry work in crumbling buildings on equipment that is decades old. But through ingenuity, perseverance, and relationships with partners abroad, they manage to perform research. The country’s publication levels are above what would be expected for an island with a population of just 11 million people—about the size of Ohio—and far above other Caribbean countries.
The situation is even better for scientists working in Cuba’s biotechnology industry, which spans a dozen government-supported companies that make products for Cuba’s public health sector and Latin America.
Still, both industry and academic scientists continue to be affected by the almost 60-year-old U.S. embargo, trade limits that were put in place after Fidel Castro’s Communist government took over Cuba. It makes buying and maintaining scientific equipment and supplies difficult and expensive because they cannot be purchased from the U.S. or contain U.S.-designed parts. The embargo also limits free travel. Despite expanding relations, U.S. residents can go to Cuba for only a limited number of reasons, including educational exchanges.
Even if the decades-old embargo were to end, Cuba would likely remain a developing country. But both the biotechnology industry and the university community are hopeful that better relations between the U.S. and Cuba will make science stronger there.
Young scientists are especially optimistic. Last year, chemists elected García Rivera, 39, as the surprise choice to lead the Cuban Chemical Society, passing over older colleagues. He plans to use his two-year term in large part to try to convince U.S. researchers to collaborate with Cuban chemists and to open up opportunities for students to train in the U.S.
“It is a win-win situation,” he says. “They learn about Cuba, and we learn something from them.”
Cuba’s research climate
The University of Havana’s Faculty of Chemistry is housed in a 1950s stone building surrounded by palm trees on a hillside not far from the main campus. It’s walking distance from Havana’s old town, where a growing number of tourists stroll down cobblestone streets among the old forts and classic hotels claiming connections to Ernest Hemingway.
Stepping inside, the offices and labs quickly illustrate the school’s financial difficulties. Their cracked walls and stained ceilings show that much of the school hasn’t been repaired in decades. But that doesn’t seem to bother its 470 students, who on a February morning gathered in the largest classroom to loudly discuss soccer battles against the other University of Havana departments.
In his research lab in a nearby building, García Rivera runs the Center for the Study of Natural Products, where he specializes in peptide and protein chemistry. His office and adjacent lab are a throwback in many ways. He shares a party line with university colleagues; his access to the internet is limited to 500 megabytes per month and is slow—downloading supplemental materials for a journal article can take hours; and his lab is void of equipment common in Western universities.
“When you finish your Ph.D., you want to do something new, something spectacular,” says García Rivera, whose wife is also a University of Havana chemist who returned to the island after studying in Mexico. “But then you are in Cuba and you realize that you have to work in something where you can get funded; otherwise it would be impossible to do very nice science.”
That’s one reason he chose to focus on biomedical research, which is one of the few areas where Cuban chemists can get funding because of the country’s intense focus on public health. Unlike in the U.S., where academic researchers are largely supported by government funding, Cuba doesn’t give out grants or regular research stipends. Faculty members are paid only for teaching classes and labs, so they have to find their own funding sources for experimentation.
“You have to understand that Cuba is a poor country. Cuba cannot finance all of the ideas that we have,” García Rivera says. He bears no resentment over the limited research money; rather, he’s proud of the country’s outsize investments in biotechnology. “Countries of a similar size and similar economy as Cuba don’t focus on science at all.”
To finance their research, the chemistry faculty have taken on a task almost unheard of in U.S. university departments: manufacturing. For example, the Center for Biomaterials, another university research hub, makes and sells products such as dental sealants and liquid bandages to support its labs. But “the incomes that they get are very, very small. It is not enough for buying materials or being self-sufficient,” says Loreley Morejón Alonso, a researcher at the center who got her chemistry Ph.D. in Brazil but recently returned to Cuba to be with her husband and son.
Currently, the largest source of income for the University of Havana’s chemistry department is sales of a plant growth stimulator. The faculty members manufacture the chemical in a locked room in the basement of the main chemistry building and sell it to the nation’s agricultural sector.
The University of Havana’s chemistry faculty struggle with the conditions there.
The proceeds go primarily toward repairing buildings and importing specialty research chemicals from Europe. Still, the sparsely stocked chemical shelves and ancient bottles underscore how hard it is to get chemicals in Cuba. Scientists and graduate students who work abroad often come back with a suitcase stuffed with supplies for their colleagues. And in a situation where chemicals are hard to come by, access to safety gear is minimal to nonexistent.
Maintaining buildings and basic chemicals doesn’t leave money for equipment, which can be purchased only from Europe or Asia at prices several times what it would cost in the U.S.
As a result, most of the equipment in the labs is decades old. The situation at the university has “always been bad, really,” remembers Carlos Peniche, who joined the chemistry faculty in the early 1970s after getting his Ph.D. in England. “Sometimes you get equipment and everything is okay. But the equipment becomes old and doesn’t work anymore.”
That’s why collaboration is key for the University of Havana’s ambitious chemists, who travel overseas often to work with scientists with better access to resources. García Rivera, for example, spends several months out of the year in the labs of his collaborators abroad. “The most difficult decision is to come back” to Cuba to start your independent research career, he says. “If you do it, you really have to find a solution to make it work. International cooperation is the key for this.”
It has been that way almost since the chemistry department began to focus on research in the 1960s. Many of the current faculty members who are in their 60s and 70s were trained in the former Soviet Union, which was a longtime supporter of both the Cuban government and Cuban science. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s ushered in a difficult time for Cuba and for science.
As Soviet resources evaporated, many young Cuban chemists saw their opportunities disappear. Alex Fragoso, who got his chemistry Ph.D. at the University of Havana in 1999, grabbed his chance to leave when he got a postdoc in Madrid in 2004. He could do research in six months in Spain that would have taken several years to complete in Cuba, explains Fragoso, now a professor at Spain’s Rovira i Virgili University. “The prospects to continue or get a research career in Cuba were very bad, and as far as I know they are still very bad.”
Brain drain is by no means unique to Cuba; most developing countries face a similar dilemma. What differs is the heavily educated population in Cuba, which consistently spends among the highest percentage worldwide of its gross domestic product on education and where 1.3 million residents are college graduates.
Alfredo Rodríguez Puentes, a chemistry graduate student, says the problem is the country’s economy hasn’t developed quickly enough to accommodate the wave of educated professionals. “It is not even connected with the money. If you want to grow as a chemist, you want to work as a chemist,” he says. “If you don’t find the conditions in this country, then you go abroad. And this is a sad thing, for sure.”
While academic chemists in Havana scrape together supplies and equipment, industry researchers on the other side of town live in a different world. The Center for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology (CIGB) is about a 30-minute drive across Havana from the Faculty of Chemistry, past embassies and huge houses that were once home to the country’s elite. Most of Cuba’s dozen government-owned biotechnology companies are in the same neighborhood, an area that is so hard to reach by public transportation that the government has built housing especially for the workers there.
CIGB is the largest of those companies, with 1,500 employees on a large campus with multiple cream- and rust-colored ’80s-era buildings. The immense difference in government support for its research is clear when entering the labs. Gleaming white and silver, they are equipped with vent hoods, abundant supplies, and new instruments. Scientists sport white lab coats and gloves—though, like at Cuba’s universities, they lack protective eyewear.
Luis Gonzáles López, a chemist who runs CIGB’s physical chemistry division, came to the center in 1986, a year after it opened. At the time, he had no idea how chemistry fit into biotechnology. He quickly learned that chemistry is a vital part of the industry’s success. “It is almost impossible to think of Cuban biotechnology without the chemists,” Gonzáles López says.
The company produces a dozen products, including vaccines for infectious diseases and treatments for diabetic foot ulcers and macular degeneration. It also has an agricultural branch that works on research that could help food production in Cuba.
Cuba’s biotech centers are well funded by the government.
CIGB has been successful enough that the government allows it to reinvest in its labs, which have new equipment. The company’s profits mean its employees earn several times the salaries that academic researchers do. About 300 CIGB employees work in R&D.
Scientists consider former Cuban president Fidel Castro founder of its biotechnology industry. After hearing about interferon from two U.S. professors, he decided Cubans should learn to make it themselves. That success prompted the Cuban government to invest in a series of biotechnology companies—support that continued even during the 1990s, which was the worst economic time for the country.
Castro “believed that in a poor country like Cuba, the only way to have a high level of medical care was if we can make our own medication ourselves,” says Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director general of the Finlay Institute, which studies and manufactures vaccines in a facility near CIGB.
In 1983, Vérez Bencomo was a University of Havana chemist recently returned from studying in Russia and France. He convinced the university to let him work exclusively on research, with the goal of developing diagnostics and treatments for diseases affecting the island nation. He first worked on developing a better test for leprosy, which was then prevalent in Cuba.
But when an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis hit the island in the late 1980s, his lab shifted its focus to vaccines. He had a young daughter at the time who he feared would be vulnerable. “My wife and I were very terrified, and I thought that with science we can do something to avoid that,” Vérez Bencomo says. “That really in the end was our motivation.”
The result was the world’s first synthetic vaccine and Cuba’s only publication in the journal Science (2004, DOI: 10.1126/science.1095209). Vérez Bencomo did the work at the University of Havana, where he eventually led a group of 40 people. In 2008, when his team outgrew the university’s lab space, he became director of the institute dedicated to vaccines. Since then, Vérez Bencomo and the larger biotechnology industry have developed an array of vaccines and medical products that are available in Cuba and abroad.
One of those is the lung cancer vaccine CIMAvax, which in November 2016 became the first Cuban treatment to enter clinical trials in the U.S. It was developed at the nearby Center for Molecular Immunology, which made the first step toward the U.S. study with a cold call to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo in 2011.
Kelvin Lee, who is shepherding the clinical trials at Roswell Park, said he had never thought about Cuban science before they got the call. “Many people thought that Cuba was stuck in the ‘I Love Lucy’ days in the ’50s,” he remembers. But he and his colleagues were impressed. “We saw both the quality of the work that they were doing and really the innovation and the infrastructure they had developed to put these vaccines into clinical practice in Cuba and internationally,” Lee says.
CIMAvax prompts an immune response against epidermal growth factor, which is important for the growth of many cancers. Cuban clinical trials have shown that the vaccine has few side effects. In Cuba, primary care physicians administer it, even in rural areas.
But navigating the vaccine through the U.S. regulatory process might be challenging. Unlike other countries that are trying to get a drug approved in the U.S., Food & Drug Administration officials haven’t been able to visit Cuban production plants or examine their clinical work because of the embargo. “It has been a black box for them for 50 or 60 years,” Lee explains. “There is no agreement between the U.S. and Cuba for really any regulatory exchanges.”
Those restrictions could stall CIGB’s aspirations of marketing its products in the U.S., where they could sell for top dollar.
“It is a big challenge for us because the FDA and the U.S. markets have been hidden for us, forbidden for us. The way of thinking and the principles that drive those markets are entirely new for us,” Gonzáles López says.
That is why Cuban companies have sought out partners, such as Roswell Park, that can guide them through the process. U.S. universities or pharmaceutical companies aren’t jumping in yet. “I think they are just seeing what happens” with CIMAvax, Lee says.
Lee has been impressed with the biotechnology industry and, in particular, with Cuban scientists. Because of the country’s scarce resources, “they are trained to be thoughtful about what they’re doing,” he says. “Their process takes longer, but they have thought about every step because they don’t really have the luxury of being able to say, ‘That didn’t work. We’ll do something else.’ ”
Gonzáles López says the industry’s first thought is not about what will sell on a foreign market or what is needed in Europe or the U.S. “Our final goal is to provide the health care system with new drugs that improve the health standard of our population. This is always our way of thinking.”
And that focus is what Vérez Bencomo is most proud of. “We need to connect the science we do with our society. The society of a poor country will never understand how important science is if they don’t really see the fruit of that science.”
Luis Montero-Cabrera agrees with that assessment. The University of Havana professor could easily have left Cuba during his career. But the 70-year-old theoretical chemist chose to stay.
“I am still very enthusiastic about the opportunities that the Cuban revolution gave to people,” he says. “Only 5% of my students would be university students if the Cuban revolution had not given them the opportunity for study. I think that is a cause worth fighting for.”
But he would love to see his students have opportunities to work with colleagues in the U.S. Montero-Cabrera notes that, in an ideal world, he could travel to New York in the morning for a meeting and be back by dinner.
“The biggest point of suffering we have from the embargo is the isolation from American science,” he says.
Montero-Cabrera is the past-president of the Cuban Chemical Society, and he took advantage of the opening in relations with the U.S. to reach out to his U.S. counterparts at the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.
ACS has sent several delegations to Cuba, and they have been working to figure out the best way to help Cuban chemists. But there is no easy solution. Donating equipment and supplies is possible, but the embargo makes it difficult and expensive.
So far, most assistance has been through visits, both for Cuban scientists to come to the U.S. and for U.S. scientists to visit Cuba. A delegation from ACS’s Analytical Chemistry and Chemical Education Divisions visited Havana in February, and they organized a meeting that allowed Cuban chemists to come to the University of Utah earlier this month to set out a path forward for collaboration.
In December 2016, William Scott, a chemistry professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, took an ACS-sponsored delegation to the University of Havana as part of his Distributed Drug Discovery program. What he found was a department that was lacking in equipment—they didn’t have a liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry system, for example—but with talented students.
“They work hard and are enthusiastic, and they make do with these situations,” he says. In fact, those limited resources are in some ways an advantage for Cuban students. In the U.S., “we take for granted a lot of what we have and aren’t pushed to be creative.”
The vast majority of University of Havana chemistry Ph.D. students go abroad for a “sandwich” degree, where they spend half the year abroad and half the year in Cuba. The restricted contacts with the U.S. have meant that those collaborators are primarily in Europe and other Latin American countries.
The University of Havana would love to send more Cuban students to the U.S. for training. So far, C&EN found only one Cuban student who has legally come to the U.S. for training: Olivia Fernandez Delgado, who worked in García Rivera’s lab as an undergraduate. She now works in the lab of Luis Echegoyen at the University of Texas, El Paso, and hopes to get her Ph.D. there.
The Cuban Chemical Society wants to foster more collaboration by encouraging more U.S. scientists to visit Cuba. Every year the society hosts a “Hot Topics” session that brings Western chemists to Cuba—on their own dime—to give lectures, primarily for students. Its leaders are also excited to host the Latin American Congress of Chemistry in 2018, which they hope will bring hundreds of potential collaborators to the island.
Cuban scientists, like many others, are uncertain what will happen with Cuba policy under the Trump Administration. A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Havana says the administration has started a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Lifting of the embargo, Cuban scientists say, would mean cheaper and faster access to equipment and supplies. But for now they are happy for relations to continue to improve as they did under Obama, especially if that leads to more collaborations with U.S. scientists.
Montero-Cabrera and his colleagues say decades of separation haven’t led to any animosity toward the U.S. In fact, he recently took a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, an experience that made him realize how important restoring the relationship is.
“People of my generation—we lived our parallel lives, them there and me here,” Montero-Cabrera says. Scientists from the two countries have been separated for his whole career, and he is excited to witness that finally turning around. “I have been very lucky to have a long life to see that.”
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