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U.S. and Cuban Scientists Explore Advances to Fight Cancer

Agustín Lage, director of the Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology, surrounded by U.S. participants at a two-day symposium on immunotherapy in Havana in late May. | Marga Gual Soler

A group of the nation’s leading cancer research scientists and their Cuban counterparts are exploring how to advance cancer therapy, diagnosis, and prevention, including the use of immunotherapy to harness the body’s immune systems to attack and eliminate cancer cells.

The effort got underway during a two-day, binational symposium on cancer control on 26 May at the Center for Molecular Immunology in Havana. The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy co-organized the event.

During the sessions, U.S. and Cuban scientists explored such topics as the molecular mechanisms cancer cells employ to evade the body’s immune system, new tools to image and manipulate that system, and ways to rethink how such therapies can best be deployed to reach patients where they receive health services.

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, who participated in the Havana symposium, are now actively working with AAAS to place early- to mid- career Cuban scientists in U.S. laboratories for visits of up to 6 months, according to Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS center responsible for Cuba cooperation.

 “The Cuban Biomedical Fellows Program is the first structured exchange program supporting the scientific engagement between the two countries, and we expect that it will lead to long-term collaborations between the leading research institutions in cancer immunotherapy in Cuba and the United States for the benefit of the peoples in both countries," said Gual Soler.

At least five laboratories in other U.S. universities are considering participating in the fellows program, she added.

Beyond the university-based experts who also came from Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh, U.S. symposium participants in Havana were from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Roswell Park Cancer Center, both in New York State, the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida and the Ponce Research Institute in Puerto Rico, as well as the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

The meeting also gave U.S. participants an opportunity to tap into the significant advances Cuban scientists have made in the development of vaccines to fight cancer. 

“Cancer research is a high priority for both countries – just witness the launch of a new National Cancer Moonshot initiative in the United States early this year,” said Tom Wang, chief international officer at AAAS and director of the AAAS center, referring to the plan President Barack Obama unveiled earlier this year to direct $1 billion toward battling cancer.

 “Scientific cooperation, including for U.S. and Cuban scientists to spend time in each other’s laboratories in this area, is essential to advancing the science of treatment, prevention, and diagnosis.”

The symposium and fellow program represent the realization of an agreement AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences forged in 2014, a year before the Obama administration restored full diplomatic ties with Cuba. In a memorandum of understanding, the two organizations pledged to advance scientific cooperation between the United States and Cuba in areas of mutual interest.

The cancer symposium has generated broad interest by the participants to work with Cuba, Wang said, adding that in response, AAAS is looking for ways to nurture the collaborations and identify legal roadblocks that exist.

Even with restoration of full diplomatic ties, the U.S. economic embargo is still in place and continues to put barriers on scientific groups to easily share technology and equipment between labs in the two countries.

AAAS has led six scientific delegations to Cuba since 1997. A December 2015 forum focused on neuroscience.

“This has been a long story that’s playing out; and it’s one in which all those steps are leading to the current efforts of really being able to cooperate scientifically,” said Wang.

[Associated image by Marga Gual Soler/AAAS]