Cuban Scientist Mitchell Valdés-Sosa discusses medical collaboration and innovation

Cuban Scientist Mitchell Valdés-Sosa discusses medical collaboration and innovation
Fecha de publicación: 
6 June 2024
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Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director General for the Neuroscience Institute of Cuba and a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, recently traveled to the United States and spoke with the Amsterdam News about medical care and research in Cuba, collaboration goals with U.S. researchers, and COVID-19 care in Cuba. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

AmNews: What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?

I think we could start collaborating more, and this could be a seed that could grow into more important forms of collaboration. The first thing is to identify common interests and start talking to each other. For example, there are people doing follow-up studies of children trying to understand child development here—very nice studies—and Cuba has been doing this also. We have a nice network of clinics for children who have learning disabilities, all over the country—208 clinics all over the country. This can be very beneficial, the kind of data we could obtain, because we still don’t understand many aspects of child development, adolescent development, and we want to prevent many kinds of diseases. Not only to cure them, [but to] prevent the development (of such diseases). I think that the goal of my visit is simply to find people, many of whom I’ve already met, but now sitting down and discussing what we cando together.

AmNews: What was your early research and work?

My PhD work was on early detection of hearing loss. I developed a system with an Apple 2 computer and some electronics for doing brainstem responses—the electrical activity of the brain to determine if the newborn was hearing or not. I took it to the hospital where my father was the director because my father specialized in obstetrics and gynecology…They gave us a room, and we tested the system…we presented this to the government, and to President Fidel [Castro]. We decided to create a network of labs to do screening for hearing loss. 

AmNews: Could you tell us about how you became interested in this work and your background?

I studied medicine, but in the last year, in the 1970s, [my] last year of medicine, I received a call from the government…[they] wanted to organize medical research centers and boost biomedical research. Cuba had, in 1965, created its first modern research center, the National Center for Scientific Research. This was the very first one. It has that name because there were no other research centers. That acted as an incubator. A group of 30 doctors [in training] went to this special program. We were trained in math, physics, physical chemistry, so we received additional training in addition to what we studied in medicine…I have been fascinated by biomedical research since I studied medicine. I hadn’t thought of doing that full-time, but I got involved with some professors who went to Cuba to teach. It’s very interesting…We needed more doctors. Professors came from all over, [from] South America, from Mexico, from Chile, Argentina.  They helped expand our medical school. I was involved as a medical student, doing research first with a Mexican professor. I decided I would go into this special program…at this time, this research center had medicine, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and people studying chemical engineering…practically every branch  of science had a small representation. From these groups, other research groups were created. 

I [connected] with a Mexican professor, Dr. Thalia Harmony, who had gone to Cuba to teach and then became part of this National Research Center. Her PhD thesis was the first one defended in Cuba. 

We had to assemble the committee from all over the world. We hooked up with a professor from NYU, Erwin Roy John. He had gone to Cuba and he said that he wanted to know Cuba, but he didn’t want a heavily guided tour. He wanted a jeep and the possibility of moving around and seeing for himself. And that’s what he did. Then he wrote some articles…He was working in neurophysiology, applying computer research. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Nations UNDP Program got funding and we decided to do a study about the effects of different factors on nutrition and stress on the development of a child’s brain. 

In 1960–61, Cuba had carried out the National Literacy Campaign. I was born in the U.S., I grew up in Chicago. In 1961, my father [took me] to Cuba. When I got there, all my cousins—I have an extended Latin family, a lot of cousins—were in the countryside teaching people to read and write. We had this literacy campaign. We had this push: the Battle for the Sixth Grade. Then universities started multiplying. We had three universities in 1959 and now we have one in every province. Research centers were being created.

We now have 36 centers or factories under one organization called BioCubaFarma that has 30,000 people working there. This effort was what allowed Cuba to really confront the COVID epidemic. 5 vaccines were made in two years. The idea was several groups would begin working and they would try different strategies, and if we had more vaccines, that would be better. (There were) five vaccines. Three of them were rolled out, two are still in the development stage because the number of cases of COVID started dropping down. The possibility of Cuba tackling the COVID epidemic came out of this effort to create this biotech sector. 

AmNews: What would you like people in America to know about Cuba and Cuban medicine?

Cuban people have a great deal of friendship for people all around the world, including the U.S. We should listen to the needs—the health problems—of both countries and collaborate. The field of public health, health, biomedical research, medicine—there’s a lot we could do together. I believe there’s a lot we can do.

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