This Cuban industry began with 6 scientists, a tiny lab — and Fidel Castro’s obsession

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HAVANA. 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.