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U.S. and Cuban researchers begin neuroscience collaborations

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Science  29 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 458-459
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6272.458

The delegations gathered at CNEURO's new Havana headquarters, completed in 2014.

PHOTO: MARGA GUAL SOLER

Guided by a historic 2014 agreement, scientists from the United States and Cuba have identified three areas of neuroscience as the focus of new research collaborations between the two countries.

The focus areas include magnetic resonance imaging technology and neuroinformatics, neurodevelopment, and a plan to establish an international nonhuman primate research center in Cuba. At their 11 to 13 December 2015 meeting in Havana, participants also discussed a biomedical research fellows exchange program for early and midcareer scientists in both countries.

One part of the exchange program, administered by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and supported with a grant from the Lounsbery Foundation, may bring Cuban scientists to the United States as early as May, said Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS center. She said the center is also working to identify funds to bring U.S.-based scientists to Cuba. “We hope this will be a very horizontal collaboration, where we can eventually place many scientists in top labs in both countries.”

The December meeting, organized by AAAS and the Cuban Neurosciences Center (CNEURO), fulfills part of the 2014 agreement by AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In their memorandum of understanding, the two organizations pledged to advance scientific cooperation between the United States and Cuba in areas of mutual interest.

The United States delegation included participants from the academic, industry, policy, and foundation sectors, who met with their Cuban counterparts to discuss the latest research advances in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, brain mapping techniques, and therapeutics. The delegation also visited the Drug Regulatory Authority (CECMED), the National Clinical Trials Coordinating Center (CENCEC), and the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM).

The research topics identified “are already part of the Cuban strength in working full-cycle from the lab to primary health, with a demonstrated impact on health indicators in Cuba and other countries,” said Pedro Valdés Sosa, CNEURO's general vice-director for research and leader of the Cuban delegation. “And for areas in which we have strengths, such as neuroinformatics and translational neuroscience, I hope the introduction of these results in primary health would be of benefit to the U.S.”

CNEURO is outfitted with equipment like a powerful, high-resolution 3 Tesla MRI system that keeps its researchers at the forefront of medical imaging technology, Valdés Sosa said. He now hopes for “intensive exchange that will allow Cuban neuroscientists to assimilate cutting-edge technologies and knowledge to be integrated into our current research programs.”

Mark Rasenick, a professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a fellow of both AAAS and the Cuban Academy, is among a handful of U.S. scientists who have seen for themselves the dynamic and productive pace of Cuban science during 20 years' worth of visits. The reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 2015 seems to have invigorated the Cuban scientific community, said Rasenick. “I was there last year, and the changes are remarkable in just a year. You can see a vibrancy, you can see money being put into research and buildings.”

Even during difficult economic times for the country, when the government lost much outside financial support after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “there was always a resolve to try and do science,” Rasenick continued. “But now that there are beginning to be more resources available, there is an enthusiasm, especially among younger people working there, and a feeling that things are going to be better for scientists.”

U.S. scientists want to work with Cuban researchers in areas where the neuroscience community there has made tremendous strides, he said, including sophisticated imaging techniques. Pharmaceutical companies are also eager to collaborate with Cuban scientists on clinical trials, given the island's diverse population and extensive health care records.

Rasenick said that the U.S.-Cuba economic embargo still is a significant barrier to sharing technology and equipment between labs in the two countries, and could keep large numbers of U.S. scientists from working in Cuba. “The embargo is as much of a relic as those late 1950s cars that are so popular on the island,” he said. “We still have a number of impediments to research, and in order to fix them, we need to end the embargo.”

Valdés Sosa noted that scientists in the United States and Cuba have a long history of working together. One of the founding fathers of CNEURO, he pointed out, was renowned New York University neuroscientist Erwin Roy John, who collaborated with Valdés Sosa and other Cuban researchers on a 1977 Science paper.

The groundwork laid in the past two decades by the Cuban Academy and AAAS “have led to specific suggestions that make the most of the current, more positive situation of U.S.-Cuba relations, and help us plan for a more open future,” said Valdés Sosa.

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