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Imagining cures

Rumors of Fidel Castro’s botched surgeries and declining health have many Americans questioning the caliber of the health care available in Cuba

By PAM BERNS
Rumors of Fidel Castro’s botched surgeries and declining health have many Americans questioning the caliber of the health care available in Cuba. Americans need not worry about medical care in Cuba. Cubans have free health care, a low infant mortality rate and a life expectancy of 75 years, on par with Britain and this country—despite U.S. restrictions involving licensing approvals of medicines sent to Cuba, even those for children.

Even throughout the 46-year embargo, Cuba has developed what experts call the best hepatitis B vaccine in the world and also has developed a wide range of advanced drugs, including cancer vaccines for lung, prostate, breast and colon cancer patients. Cuban researchers have produced a genetically engineered monoclonal antibody for humans with advanced epithelial cancers of the head and neck, therapy for retinosis, and therapeutic vaccines for early-stage cancers. It is hoped that the cancer vaccines will stop tumor growth for prolonged periods of time by stimulating the immune system to find and destroy the cancerous cells without the side effects usually associated with chemotherapy and radiation. Cuban researchers have also done extensive studies in dengue—a disease affecting 50 million people worldwide each year.

Although Cuba is a tiny country of 11 million people, it has more than 12,000 scientists and 52 scientific research institutes in the capital. According to The Straits Times, Cuban biotechnology is expected to be the leader in a “new generation of anti-cancer therapies expected to be available to the European market by 2008.”

Meanwhile, a scientific magnet, Singapore, is attracting stem cell researchers from all over the world. According to The New York Times, Singapore is considered a “haven for biomedical freedom”—something that, because of President Bush’s recent veto of federal funding on stem cells, is resulting in an exodus of prominent scientists from other nations to Singapore. Singapore has spent 1.5 billion Singapore dollars on biotechnology since 2000. They plan on spending nearly as much to finance development of new drugs and therapies in the new few years. According to the Times, a Singapore company ES Cell International, announced that they have produced human embryonic stem cell lines that are commercially available and are suitable for clinical trials. A vial of stem cells is available for $6,000 and can be purchased over the Internet.

The Times writes that scientists’ salaries exceed those in the United States. Singapore’s stem cell bank, Biopolis, has attracted some of the best cancer specialists in the world, including American scientists who were counting on California’s Proposition 71—the program “meant to unleash $3 billion in state financing for stem cell research. But legal challenges have kept that money in limbo.”

That is unfortunate because, amazingly, Biopolis scientists were able to demonstrate that stem cells could enter the brain via the bloodstream rather than be introduced directly through an invasive procedure. Rather than face a future of uncertain grants for funding their work in an equally frustrating legal environment, scientists are able to get the backing and freedom to continue their research.

Research in the United States is going in a different direction. The National Cancer Institute’s new director, Dr. John E. Niederhuber, when asked about Bush’s stem cell limits, answered, “I think the research questions that we have before us are quite doable under the current constraints. However, I anticipate that these constraints could be limiting as our knowledge increases,” according to the Times. Niederhuber discussed his hopes for less toxic cancer drugs, but because of cutbacks, some of the NCI programs would be phased out. This is a shame. The recent good news of declines in colon cancer deaths are largely attributed to increases in cancer funding during the Clinton years.

Another Bush administration appointment, Dr. Eric Keroack, known as an anti-birth control zealot, was named to oversee the country’s family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Keroack had previously been serving as medical director for a group of crisis pregnancy health centers that even opposed dispensing contraception to married women.

With a Democratic Congress in power, hopefully they will soon have the votes to override Bush’s veto and American scientists will have the money and freedom to pursue their research here at home.

It is imperative that this research go forward. Nearly every day another breakthrough involving stem cell therapies is announced. Recently the Times reported that researchers improved the vision of rats suffering from a disease similar to age-related macular degeneration. When injected by human embryonic stem cells, the rats retained about half of the normal value of layers of rods and cones. Researchers are hoping to combine a bank of retinal cells derived from 100 embryonic stem cells of different immunological backgrounds to match almost any person’s background so that the vision of patients losing their sight could be treated. Because the eye is not closely monitored by the immune system, it is hoped that the retina cells would not reject the cells from different immunological types.

The voters let their wishes be known in November. They joined the bipartisan group of congressional representatives who voted to lift Bush’s federal financial ban on stem cell research—a bill that Bush then vetoed on ethical grounds.

Our president’s sources of ethical advice include regular phone conversations with Ted Haggard, the married preacher who sought massage and methamphetamines from a male prostitute. Our president’s gut instincts on launching war and looking into Putin’s eyes defy logic. Imagine if “The Decider” had not restricted funding for stem cell research for the past 6 years. Would the blind see? Would those with spinal injuries walk? Would diabetics live free of injections and tragic loss of limbs? Would Parkinson’s patients be relieved of their tremors? Would cancer treatments be less toxic? Thanks to The Decider, thousands of patients may have missed their chances. I hope Bush can live with his decision. I can’t.

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007