One of our first stops was in Matanzas, east of Havana on an historically important port off the Florida Straits. We strolled a city square and visited the Museo Farmaceutico de Matanzas. Supposedly it is the only pharmaceutical museum in the world and reflects Fidel Castro’s interest in and strong financial support for building world-class pharmaceutical and biotech scientific industries. The scientific community has known about their work because Cuban scientists publish in scientific journals, but doctors in the United States have not been able to access Cuban drugs until Obama began lifting the embargo. It seems that in the case of medications the embargo helped Cuba because they didn’t have access to U.S. drugs so had to develop their own. They did a good job, so consequently the embargo was detrimental to U.S. citizens.
I didn’t have high expectations, but was curious because I had no idea what would be in a pharmaceutical museum in a small, impoverished country. It was a fascinating place to visit and by chance STAT, a website that reports “from the frontiers of health and medicine,” just happened to show up on a website I was browsing and have an article on how “Trump’s election threatens medical cooperation between US and Cuba.” The article was informative about the Cuban biotech industry and I am impressed enough to include information from this article along with my observations and photos.
This pharmacy was established on January 1, 1882 by Ernesto Troilet and Juan Fermin de Figueroa and the first thing I noticed was the beautiful architecture. I took photographs as I listened to the museum guide – knowing that anything I missed I would be able to read about later. The walls are lined with shelves of French porcelain hand-painted jars and drawers and small jars filled with herbs, syrups and elixirs. I find small drawers so intriguing.
The pharmacy also collected more than a million original formulae and rare books on botany, medicine, chemistry, and pharmaceuticals in several foreign languages.
We saw original equipment used for experimentation and the making of medicines.
Cuba’s government-run pharmaceutical and biotech industry is one of the lesser-known legacies of Fidel Castro: It employs 22,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians on modern campuses, sells drugs in 23 countries, and wants to bring its products to the United States. Cuba’s biotech industry has been able to focus on non-communicable chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes because they have mostly eradicated infectious diseases a long time ago with their excellent primary healthcare system. All Cubans have access to free health care in neighborhood clinics and Cuban scientists, as they are experimenting with new medications, think closely about how drugs could be used by primary-care doctors in the poorest districts.
Two drugs have already been approved for clinical trials in the US. The lung cancer drug, CimaVax has been approved for clinical trials by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. and the drug Heberprot-P, a treatment for diabetic ulcers, by Mercurio Biotec in Texas.
Scientists in the U.S. are really excited about these two drugs. CimaVax has produced good results in extending the life of people with late-stage lung cancer, is inexpensive to produce, has very limited and non-serious side effects, and can be administered as a vaccine against re-occurrence of lung cancer by general practitioner doctors. The link in the previous paragraph provides a lot of very interesting information.
Cuban researchers claim the drug Heberprot-P prevents amputations in a majority of patients with diabetic foot ulcers, the most common cause of limb loss in the world. Clinical trials will be started for FDA approval in the U.S., where about 80,000 diabetics a year have an amputation as a result of foot ulcers. It has already been used successfully by some 225,000 patients in more than 20 countries, including Russia, Venezuela, and Argentina. The drug is injected around the periphery of the wound with healing taking place in around two months.
It was fun finding out what Cuba is doing with health care (they have more doctors per person than any other country) and pharmaceuticals but my passion was for the architecture. Here are some of my favorites for the museum.