U.S.-Cuba Meeting Demonstrates Value of Collaboration in Science

AAAS Helps Organize Symposium in Havana on Mosquito-Borne Illnesses
Cuban and U.S. scientists and science representatives visited the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana as part of a binational event furthering scientific collaboration | Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

AAAS confirmed its commitment to bringing U.S. and Cuban scientists together to work on issues of crucial importance to the populations of both countries with a August 14-17 symposium in Havana, Cuba, on mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and Zika virus.

“We want to show the world that these exchanges are possible, that human welfare is advanced if we have full collaboration and free exchange of ideas and people,” said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt in opening remarks. “This symposium is an important example of that.”

Co-organized by AAAS, the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, the symposium reflected a longstanding history of scientific collaboration between the two nations dating back more than a hundred years, as well as more recent overtures that culminated in an agreement to work together signed by AAAS and the Cuban Academy in 2014.

It was the earlier history that Peter Agre, AAAS past president and Nobel laureate, first invoked in one of his presentations at the event in Havana. Agre is also the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, which coordinated top U.S. experts in vector biology to attend the symposium.

Agre, left, scientist Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart and Holt attend Agre’s induction ceremony at the Cuban Academy of Sciences. | Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

In 1900, Walter Reed, as head of a U.S. Army board charged by the surgeon general to study tropical diseases, went to Cuba to explore how yellow fever was transmitted, Agre said. Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay had accumulated significant evidence that mosquitoes spread the disease, but Reed was directed not to look into that connection. Luckily, Reed ignored his superiors — “I think scientists have a higher order of responsibility,” said Agre. By confirming Finlay’s research, yellow fever was brought under control for the very first time.

At the recent symposium, the Cuban Academy welcomed Agre as a corresponding member, an honor reserved for non-Cubans credited with outstanding scientific advances.

“I think that my induction into the Cuban Academy of Sciences is not something that has to do with one person,” said Agre at his induction ceremony, having earlier credited Cuban scientists with developing the world's best Type B meningococcal vaccine, cancer vaccines and a medicine that effectively heals diabetic foot ulcers. “It’s about scientific organizations, in the United States and Cuba, that are working together and can accomplish many things together that could not otherwise be achieved.”

Entitled the U.S.-Cuba Binational Symposium on New Advances in Aedes Aegypti Biology and Control, the Havana symposium brought experts from both countries to discuss approaches to controlling the vectors, particularly Aedes Aegypti, that transmit such diseases as dengue, chikungunya and Zika virus, all of which have appeared across broad swaths of the Americas, including in Cuba and the United States.

“This is a timely symposium for Cuban and U.S. scientists to exchange and share experiences on public health challenges facing both countries, the world, and the region of the Americas in particular,” said Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.

Sergio Pastrana, executive director of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, called the symposium, plus a previous conference on neuroscience held in December 2015 and one on cancer immunotherapy in May 2016, opportunities for “scientists of both nations to get to know each other and create avenues that lead to more long-range exchanges.”

Mackenzie and Gual Soler helped organize AAAS' role in the symposium. | Douglas Norris

The 2014 agreement between AAAS and the Cuban Academy also paved the way to a program that places Cuban researchers with colleagues in U.S. research labs. So far, one research fellow, a neuroscientist, is working at Washington University in St. Louis. Two others, who focus on cancer immunology, are due to arrive at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School in the fall, and an infectious disease researcher and a specialist in biodiversity are due in 2018. Meanwhile, the ongoing symposia help reveal and inform the research partnerships that should be pursued.

At the symposium on vector-borne illness, one of the methods for controlling the mosquito population that piqued interest involved Wolbachia, a bacterium that can stop viruses such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika from growing inside the mosquitoes and being transmitted to people and that can also reduce mosquito populations. Tests of Wolbachia in California and Florida were promising, according to Stephen Dobson, professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology, and Dobson said he and L.A. Piedra, of the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, discussed a collaborative project.

Juan Bisset, chair of the Department of Vector Control at Pedro Kourí, said use of the bacterium as a pesticide presents “a new tool” for Cuba and “one of the easiest and fastest ways” to control vector-borne disease spread.

Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, professor at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, said a number of the U.S. and Cuban experts at the meeting have already initiated plans to collaborate. “There was opportunity to establish personal relationships,” said Jacobs-Lorena, who gave a presentation about introducing pathogen-inhibiting genes into bacteria of the mosquito gut. “I know of several Cuban-American collaborative projects that are planned as a result of this event.”

Meanwhile, researchers said that Cuba possesses long-term data on mosquito populations that could be very helpful in controlling them to stop or slow the spread of disease. Douglas Norris, professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, pointed out that year-to-year data on mosquito populations are crucial, whereas short-term data may miss or misrepresent peaks in mosquito populations — which are often targeted for the most effective vector control.

Other advances in vector control that were presented at the symposium included sterilizing mosquitoes with irradiation, genetic engineering of them so that their virus-blocking proteins are overexpressed, and gene-editing. In a presentation entitled “Genetic Engineering for the Masses,” Jason Rasgon, professor of entomology and disease epidemiology at Pennsylvania State University, explained that “gene-editing cargo” can be directly injected into female mosquitoes to produce heritable characteristics in their offspring.

Generally, researchers said that a relatively small number of insecticides are currently used in the fight against illness-bearing mosquitoes and resistance to those chemicals is growing. New insecticides, including ones from botanical sources such as the plant genus Cinnamosma and chemicals with different mechanisms for thwarting a mosquito’s physiology, are needed, as well as other measures, including vaccines protecting against diseases such as Zika.

In a separate meeting, Holt and Pastrana developed future plans for their memorandum of understanding to extend beyond the biomedical sciences into areas including natural disaster resilience, protecting marine ecosystems and biodiversity management — all areas of great importance to the societies of Cuba and the United States.

“Despite the political differences between the United States and Cuba, both nations are strong in the sciences and have a history of fruitful collaboration,” said Julia MacKenzie, AAAS director of international relations. “We want to ensure this continues, to the benefit of Americans and Cubans.”

Holt emphasized the value of the particular research collaboration areas and the societal benefits they can yield. He also pointed to the importance of allowing scientists from all over the world to work together and exchange ideas freely. 

“Yes, we are interested in the research per se,” Holt said, “but we are also interested in seeking international collaboration because that is one of the conditions that is necessary for science to thrive.”