By Mohd Azril Mohd Annuar and Syed Azwan Ali | Bernama
A decade has yet to pass since Malaysia and Cuba inked a scientific agreement but both are already reaping great rewards and benefits through this mutual cooperation with greater possibilities looming on the horizon.
The greatest achievement for both nations so far is in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical fields where a dynamic relationship has evolved with Malaysia’s expertise in the production line goes hand in hand with Cuba’s research capabilities and experience in the medical and intellectual realm.
“We (Malaysia and Cuba) are like two sides of the same coin. Malaysia has the capital to assist the development of Cuban scientific discoveries”, observed Cuban Ambassador to Malaysia Carlos Amores in an exclusive interview with Bernama.
THE WORLD’S FIRST HALAL MENINGITIS VACCINE
The cooperation between Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and the Finlay Institute from Cuba to develop a halal meningitis vaccine, which was unheard of up to two years ago holds great potential.
According to a USM’s website article dated 20 Jan 2008, former Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed noted that the vaccine is critical for Muslims performing their Hajj or Umrah since it is derived from plant cell culture instead of animal cell culture.
The Malaysian government approved a grant of RM2 million while the Cuban government contributed RM1.6 million (400,000 Euro-dollar) for this project.
“Instead of injecting the bacteria or the virus into the human body, a synthesized polysaccharine cell culture is introduced to simulate and produce the immune reaction in the human body, generating the antibodies required to combat the disease”, explained Amores when asked to comment on the latest developments.
He further said that the key in creating this substance was reprogramming the cell at the genetic level.
The vaccine will only be introduced into the market between the next one and two years time due to the approval procedures involved to ensure the safety of the vaccine which includes proper certification, registration and other relevant requirements.
The next stage for this potentially successful two-nation joint effort would be the establishment of a vaccine plant in Malaysia for mass production, warranting technology transfer from Finlay Institute.
OTHER BIOTECH MEDICAL ENDEAVORS
Thus with Cuba’s assistance, last year a Malaysian bio-tech company Bioven Sdn Bhd began conducting Malaysia’s very first clinical trials for a lung cancer vaccine which can quite possibly be developed to treat other cancers as well.
Bioven chief executive officer Dr W.Shermal Perera stated in a Bernama article dated 7 April 2008; “We are equally excited because this is the first time Malaysia will go through a clinical trial period organized by a local company.
“We also have Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Cuban Ambassador, His Excellency Signor Carlos Amores to thank for because they have helped us bring here this product. Should we succeed with Malaysia and the clinical trials are approved by the regulatory bodies, our next plan is to go into Europe to conduct the trials there.
In the same article Cuban Center of Molecular Immunology Project Manager Dr Gisela Gonzalez Marinello stated that around 200-350 patients have been treated in Cuba with the vaccine during its clinical trial period and the treatment has proven successful.
“The vaccine helps prolong the life of the patient. Sixty percent of the patients treated with the vaccine have a continued lifespan of 12 months in comparison to only six to seven months with only chemotherapy.
“Another 30 percent of the patients treated have survived up to two years while an astounding 10 per cent have managed to continue living a good life for up to six years. Best of all, there are very minimal side effects unlike chemotherapy. There have been no reports of hair loss or organ damage”, added Dr Marinello.
To date, 10 Malaysian hospitals have agreed to conduct the clinical trials and recently Ambassador Amores reported that 38 patients have been undergoing the vaccination and the results have been quite encouraging.
GOOD NEWS FOR DIABETIC PATIENTS AND FISH FARMERS
Amores added that another new Cuban medical product could heal diabetic ulcers on the feet. Prior to this, diabetic feet ulcers were extremely difficult to treat and in many cases the feet had to be amputated.
Amores confirmed that this medication has the capability to heal the foot ulcer and is being sold in the open market in Latin America.
Cuba’s biotech strength and experience however does not lie only within the medical and pharmaceutical services. Being an agrarian island nation, the nation’s bio-technology expertise obviously covers the agricultural sector as well.
“Cuban scientists have recently developed a new complex amino acid for fish farming. The acid is introduced into the fish at the larval stage and this enhances the survival rate by 15 percent. With the acid, the fishes become more active, eat more and grow to their maximum weight and size, producing greater yield.
“And best of all, this product seems to work with shrimps as well. This is another product that we would like to market here”, explained Amores.
Although the possibilities for a very profitable relationship between Malaysia and Cuba is unlimited, Amores commented that importing bio-tech products and services here could be costly.
“The best method is for the government to handle this. I believe a G2G (government to government) effort can make things easier.
“Cuba has reached high development in bio-tech and Malaysia has made it a top priority to develop its own bio-tech industry”, explained Amores.
INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES AND DIPLOMATIC HISTORY
When asked regarding the best industry for Malaysian investors who are interested in Cuba, Amores stated that it would be tourism as the beautiful Caribbean island nation with its magnificent beaches, colorful culture and friendly people is perfectly suited for this.
“We receive around 2.5 million tourists every year and this number is rising. We need to develop the tourism infrastructure - hotels, resorts, golf courses and more. This would be a very good industry for Malaysian investors who are interested in Cuba”, added Amores.
Malaysia first established diplomatic relations with Cuba on 6 February 1975, with the Caribbean nation opening its embassy here in 1997 and Malaysia opening a diplomatic mission in Havana in 2001.
Both nations strengthened the diplomatic bond during the 1990s and the ties became stronger at the onset of the new millennium with former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s visit to Kuala Lumpur to sign the Commercial, Economic and Scientific-Technical Exchange Agreement and the Intergovernmental Commission was created.