Biotech Mission to Cuba
BETC director Kamal Rashid hopes to develop collaborations in
March 20, 2017
As the 1950s vintage cars course through city streets seemingly frozen
in time, a vibrant biopharmaceutical sector flourishes in Cuba,
supplying most of the country's essential medicines and exporting
life-saving vaccines to developing countries.
"It was not what I expected to find," says Kamal Rashid, PhD, director
of WPI's Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center, who was part of
a Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) delegation that
traveled to Cuba in February.
The MassBio group, which also included research and business development
leaders from several companies, Harvard University, Massachusetts
College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Massachusetts Biomedical
Initiatives, joined Bay State congressmen Jim McGovern of Worcester and
Seth Moulton of Salem for the three-day mission.
"With the new openness between the United States and Cuba, we want to
seize the opportunity to explore mutually beneficial collaborations in
both biologics research and biomanufacturing," Rashid says.
"Massachusetts is a world leader in biopharmaceutical development and
manufacturing, so it makes sense for both sides to begin building
relationships. And having the two Congressmen with us was very important
in terms of access and respect from the Cuban leadership. Their presence
elevated our mission."
In addition to his work at WPI, Utah State, and Penn State, Rashid has
led biotechnology research, education, and biomanufacturing workforce
training programs in 15 countries and territories, including multiple
projects in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Based on his
experience, Rashid says Cuba is "the clear biotech leader in Latin America."
"I was quite impressed with the scale of their capabilities and their
research in several programs," he says. "The Cuban government made an
early commitment to investing in biotechnology in the 1980s and they
have followed through, in spite of a very difficult economy and the
impact of the U.S. trade embargo."
BioCubaFarma is the government run umbrella organization for the
industry. It has 31 affiliated entities and 62 production centers. It
has a staff of over 22,000 people and manufactures 525 of the 849 drugs
in Cuba's catalog of essential medicines.
Rashid and the delegation met with BioCubaFarma leaders and visited
research scientists at Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and
Biotechnology. That center has developed 21 products, including cancer
immunotherapies, a hepatitis B vaccine, and therapies for macular
Rashid and colleagues also met with scientists and leaders at Cuba's
Institute of Tropical Medicine "Pedro Kouri" (named for its founder),
which has operated continuously since 1937. The institute houses a World
Health Organization (WHO) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)
collaborative center for the study of viral diseases, with a current
focus on dengue fever, Zika, and measles.
Rashid says he saw strengths in vaccines, cancer therapies. and
medicinal plants that U.S.-based companies could help advance to larger
scale clinical trials. What the Cubans need are partnerships and access
to U.S./Western research funding, technology, and investments in
production capabilities, he notes.
"It was a first step and I believe we started some important
conversations," Rashid says. "The next step is for a group of Cuban
scientists and biotech leaders to travel here to Massachusetts. I hope
that will happen within the year."
- By Michael Cohen
Source: Biotech Mission to Cuba | News | WPI -