Cuba cutting `world class' trail in biotech research

HAVANA -- On the outskirts of Havana sits a cluster of drab buildings that are part of an effort to propel Cuba to the forefront of biotechnology even as its population struggles with blackouts, shortages and crumbling infrastructure.

Known as the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, or CIGB, the institute is one of 52 government facilities dedicated to human, animal and agricultural research that have recorded a string of successes.

Using more than $1 billion in state funding, Cuban scientists have produced a hepatitis B vaccine sold in more than 30 countries and streptokinase, a potent enzyme that dissolves blood clots and improves the survival rate of heart attack victims. The country also makes recombinant interferon that strengthens the immune system of cancer patients, and a meningitis B vaccine.

In the pipeline are products ranging from an injection that closes ulcers and improves circulation in diabetics to vaccines against cholera and hepatitis C, according to Cuban officials.

"We've been very impressed by the biotech industry in Cuba," said Anne Walsh, vice president for communications at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. "It's world class.