Cuban neuroscientist Marquiza Sablón at Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked on advances in Alzheimer's detection. | Nilantha Bandara
The new U.S. policy on Cuba is holding back science collaborations that can accelerate by years the development of early detection and treatment technologies for such diseases as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
In July 2017, before the new policy was imposed, Cuban neuroscientist Marquiza Sablón traveled to Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) as a participant in the AAAS Cuban Biomedical Fellows program. At her home institution, the Cuban Neurosciences Center, Sablón had developed compounds with the potential to detect Alzheimer’s disease when tagged with radioactive isotopes, a promising new technology that could potentially be used for diagnosis and early detection based on nuclear imaging techniques. By the time of her departure at the end of December, Sablón said her “research goal was reached with the use of a radionuclide produced at WUSTL,” and she and her U.S. colleagues hoped to publish an article on the research to share their findings with other pioneers in the field.
“Through this six-month exchange,” said Buck Rogers, director of the lab that hosted Sablón at WUSTL, “Marquiza was able to make progress and answer questions about her project that may have taken years in Cuba.”
“The whole lab learned from her experience and unique perspective while working on the experiments associated with her project,” Rogers added. “From my experience, it has been a highly productive exchange that benefits both the U.S. and Cuban labs. It’s always beneficial to have new insights and broader perspectives contributing to tough questions.”
Other Cuban researchers scheduled to work in U.S. labs through the AAAS Cuban Biomedical Fellows program are unfortunately blocked from obtaining visas in Cuba, after a change in U.S. policy occurred in late September with the hardening stance of President Trump toward the island nation and reports by U.S. embassy officials in Havana of having suffered mysterious health problems of unknown origin.
The AAAS program to bring Cuban medical researchers to work alongside their U.S. counterparts grew out of a long-standing history of scientific collaboration between the two nations and an agreement signed by AAAS and the Cuban Academy in 2014 to work together despite political obstacles on research important to the populations of both countries.
Darel Martínez is a researcher at Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology, which has pioneered cancer antibodies and vaccines approved in several countries around the world. At the end of 2016, he was chosen to be a AAAS Cuban Biomedical Fellow in the lab of U.S. immunotherapy expert Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania. His goal is to work on the design of a chimeric antigen receptor T cell to target a protein that plays a role in tumor development.
As a researcher, Martínez is a strong advocate of international collaboration, indicating that without it, scientific research is needlessly repeated and, in some cases, produces results that are no longer relevant. “The only way that science can progress constantly is through the accumulation of knowledge used as a basis to build the next level,” Martínez said. “Without collaboration among scientific groups that show more progress in a particular field, the research slows, and probably when you reach your goals, they will be obsolete and useless.”
Agreeing, Avery Posey, associate director of the June Lab, explained that Martínez has an expertise in the biology and antibody targeting of epidermal growth factor receptors, the main technology behind his institution’s cancer vaccine. The Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has expertise in the development of T cell immunotherapies that are built from parts of therapeutic antibodies. “We are not sure what the outcomes will be of this collaboration,” said Posey, “but one hope is that Cuba can figure out ways to drive down the manufacturing costs of CAR T cells.” CAR T cell therapy can cost cancer patients upward of $350,000 for a one-time dose. “International collaboration is essential,” said Posey, “to ensuring that scientists develop and drive forward the best possible therapeutics and ideas, not just the ones that exist within our borders.”
Unfortunately, Martínez has been thwarted from coming to collaborate with June’s lab. After working through “a mountain of emails, immigration paperwork and contracts,” said Posey, Martínez received immigration documents and the lab paid fees for a visa interview in September. He was waiting for that interview to take place at the U.S. embassy in Havana when Hurricane Irma hit Cuba, and the consular section of the embassy was closed. When it reopened, the U.S. policy prohibiting issuing visas to Cuban citizens in Cuba had been instituted. On instructions from the U.S. State Department, Martínez must travel to a visa interview in a third country to enter the United States, and lab officials are hoping he will arrive in February.
“This process, which is not yet finished,” said Martínez, “results in a delay of at least four months at the start of the collaboration project and implies an increase in the cost of my trip, money that could be better used on research.”
“While not explicitly targeting science,” said Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, “this new U.S. policy on Cuba severely limits travel and the logistical aspects of scientific cooperation. These effects will likely disincentivize joint research on both sides.”
Cuban cancer researchers Tays Hernández and Janoi Chang have also been blocked in their attempt to participate in the AAAS Cuban Biomedical Fellows program. The two were to have arrived in Boston by early this year to work with researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, using molecules made in Cuba that show promise in the development of new drugs and imaging tools for cancer therapy and autoimmune or inflammatory diseases. They have been unable, however, to even begin the visa application process.
“We couldn’t travel to the United States, despite the financial support we had from AAAS,” Hernández and Chang wrote in an email, referring to funding provided by the Lounsbery Foundation to the AAAS program. “For the moment, the project is blocked.”
A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the January 26, 2018, issue of Science.
[Associated image: Cuban Capitol building, which houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Credit: Yerandy1990/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)]