U.S.-Cuba Scientific Collaboration Advances

Havana Symposium Co-Organized by AAAS Leads to Promising Research Partnerships
Cuban and U.S. scientists and science representatives visited the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology as part of an August binational symposium furthering research collaboration. | Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

U.S. and Cuban scientists are planning a new round of research collaborations as part of joint work to accelerate progress on combatting threatening mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and Zika virus – the latest development in an ongoing collaboration between the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cuban Academy of Sciences.

Among several collaborations being considered is one that would bring a Cuban research fellow to the Ohio State University. Peter Piermarini, associate professor of entomology at Ohio State, explained that a Cuban research group has particular expertise in assessing the insecticidal and mosquito-repellent properties of products derived from plants.

In a “natural synergy,” Piermarini said, his lab would benefit from the Cubans’ expertise, while offering them exposure to new experimental approaches and ways to measure the effect of substances on living cells or tissues. The idea for this collaboration grew out of conversations Piermarini had with Pedro Kourí Institute researchers Juan Bisset and Domingo Montada at an August symposium in Cuba that AAAS, the Cuban Academy and Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine co-organized.  

“I envision a Cuban research fellow helping to expedite progress on these research projects and learning new experimental approaches that they could bring back with them to Cuba,” Piermarini said. “I also value the opportunity to have someone from a different culture join my research group, which brings fresh ideas and perspectives toward solving problems and enriches scientific research.”

The August 14-17 symposium in Havana confirmed the commitment of AAAS to bringing U.S. and Cuban scientists together to work on issues of crucial importance to the populations of both countries.

“We want to show the world that these exchanges are possible, despite political obstacles, 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 at the event. “This symposium is an important example of that.”

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 was 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, senior 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.”

A 2014 memorandum of understanding between AAAS
and the Cuban Academy 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 this 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, and three new fellowships that came directly out of the August symposium are now being considered.

Other collaborations that are currently being discussed focus on the development of small molecules that could disrupt “kidney” (Malphigian tubule) function in mosquitoes, on the differences in the ability to transmit disease among various populations of Aedes aegypti and other mosquitoes, and on advances in the surveillance of adult mosquitoes.

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 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.”

[Associated Image: James Gathany/Flickr (CC by 2.2)]