Aficionados of cigars and rum are celebrating new U.S. rules that allow visitors to Cuba to carry home as much as these fine commodities as they can cram into their luggage. But the regulations, unveiled today and set to take effect on 17 October, are sure to please another constituency: researchers in biomedicine and public health. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has authorized U.S. scientists to freely collaborate with Cuban counterparts on everything from cancer therapies to combatting the Zika virus.
“It is a very important step,” says neuroscientist Pedro Valdés-Sosa, research director at the Cuban Neuroscience Center in Havana. On a trip last month to the United States, he says, “everywhere I went there were concrete ideas for collaborations that would benefit the people of both countries. These new measures pave the way for cooperation.”
The rules, which build on the historic rapprochement between the two nations in December 2014, also make it easier for Cuban-made pharmaceuticals to undergo U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review, and they allow FDA-approved Cuban drugs to be imported and sold. In a potential boon for Cuban scientists of all stripes, the U.S. government is also lifting restrictions that have mostly barred Cubans from receiving U.S. grants, scholarships, and awards for research.
“If it’s truly feasible to use federal grants to support Cuban research, then everybody wins,” says immunologist Thomas Schwaab, chief of strategy, business development and outreach at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Roswell Park has been working with the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana to shepherd a Cuba-developed lung cancer vaccine into clinical trials in the United States.
Under earlier rules, U.S. scientists had to apply to the treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a license to conduct research with Cuban colleagues—“a very involved and detailed process,” Schwaab says. Most licenses are valid for only 1 or 2 years at most, he says, and renewals are time consuming, making it hard to sustain long-term collaborations.
The longstanding OFAC restrictions created “a lot of confusion” over what kinds of collaborations are permissible, adds Marga Gual Soler, a project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, which has brokered contacts in recent years between Cuban and U.S. researchers. (AAAS is the publisher of Science.) It has been unclear, she says, “what activities required special OFAC licenses, especially when it comes to carrying or donating scientific equipment to Cuba.”
Roswell Park did obtain an OFAC license to conduct preclinical and clinical research on CimaVax EGF, a therapeutic lung cancer vaccine developed by CIM that has been used in more than 4000 patients worldwide. “Cuban science has taken a completely novel approach to immunotherapy, and they have developed totally different solutions,” Schwaab says. He hopes the new rules will now help Roswell Park gain FDA approval for a clinical trial in U.S. patients with advanced lung cancer.
One open question is whether Cuba’s own regulations will pose unanticipated constraints. “It’s one thing for us to say we want to collaborate,” Schwaab says. Another uncertainty is whether many of Cuba’s top scientists, who have forged collaborations with colleagues in Europe and elsewhere, will embrace working with a country that sought to isolate them for so long. Despite the embargo, Schwaab notes, Cuban scientists “are very proud of what they’ve achieved.”