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Posted by C3W Admin on June 24 2022

Last month we engaged in a very fruitful and informal conversation seminar-style with PhD(c) Fatima Elfitouri (King’s College London), Dr Nils Graber (University of Lausanne), and our very own Dr Edna Suarez-Dias (UNAM) on the history of biomedicine in Cuba during the Cold War. All scholars represent a different approach to the topic, combining methods from medical anthropology and history of medicine to debate crucial topics including the development of immunotherapy in co-creating with Cuba’s public health system, the involvement of transnational networks in biomedicine vis-à-vis ideological restrictions, and the possibilities of looking beyond Latin American or inter-American networks for future work on the history of biomedicine.

Fatima assisted our understanding of the underlying context that defined the public health system in Cuba by referring to the development of the field in the island since the early 20th century, with the advent of ground-breaking research on Yellow Fever. During the interwar years and towards WW2, the dominant approach in Cuban public health was steered towards sociopolitical causes above the influence of European hygienism. According to Fatima, the approach radically changed with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, when policies on science and technology enabled the growth of biomedicine parallel to public health advances.


Nils deepened the conversation around the growth of immunotherapy in the 1980s, with the emergence of a biomedical elite focused on interferon and pleiotropic drugs for both infectious diseases and cancer treatment. Parallel to these developments, monoclonal antibodies were developed in and around the main institutions of Cuban biomedical research: the Centro de Ingenieria Genetica y Biotecnologia CIGB (Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology – established in 1986 and emerging from the Centro de Investigacion Biologica CIB), and the Instituto Nacional de Oncologia y Radiobiologia INOR (National Institute of Oncology and Radiation Biology). Nils expanded on the links of the institutions with representatives of the USSR (Budapest).


Edna closed the presentations by contrasting the Cuban experiences with the development of Malarian research in Mexico, in relation to the G6PD anomaly and the emergence of pharmacogenomics in the 1950s. She elaborated on the multiple changes produced during the development of the research including the arrival of electrophoresis, the partnership with new pharmacological firms (and exponential growth of resources devoted to genetic research), and the involvement of key actors elsewhere on international health exploring hemoglobinopathies. Lastly, she connected these developments with research in the USSR.


Our closing conversation encountered wonderful Q and A between our speakers. Hope you enjoy!


A small profile of the speakers below:


Fatima Elfitouri is a last year PhD candidate at King’s College London in UK with a project titled ’Cancer immunotherapy in the Cuban bioscape’. Fatima’s research focuses on the development of Cancer immunotherapy and biotech in Cuba. She conducted ethnographic research at the ‘Centre of Molecular Immunology’ in La Havana Cuba. Prior to her doctoral work, she completed a BA in Cell Biology at the University of Manchester, and a MA in Medical Anthropology at SOAS. Fatima has also conducted biomedical research on cancer at the University of Nottingham, and has worked research on antimalarial resistant program at the MRC unit in the Gambia. We thank you for being with us and the floor is yours.


Dr Nils Graber is Senior researcher at the Science and Technologies Studies Laboratory, located at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lausanne Switzerland. As a medical anthropologist, his recent work focuses on immuno-oncology and precision medicine at the SNSF project DOPHIS, which explores the development of personalised health in Switzerland. His most recent publications revolve around the idea of chronicity in medical practice and technology. Nils has also studied cancer research and biomedical innovation in the primary healthcare system of Cuba. He graduated from the Doctoral Program in Social Science and Health at the EHESS/The Schools of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.


Prof Dr Edna Suarez is one of our Principal Investigators at Connecting 3 Worlds, coordinating the Latin American team. Her work in the project focuses on the medical genetics, technical assistance, and interventions in Latin America and Mexico during the Cold War – specifically the connection between human disease and studies on human variation, as it played out in the decades after WW2. Her previous work on this topic covers the 1960s studies of a range of blood diseases – i. e. hemoglobinopathies in Mexican indigenous communities, which took place in the context of malaria global health campaigns. Edna has published extensively on the molecularization of evolutionary biology, the introduction of computer and statistical analysis in the life sciences, and the mobilization of the nuclear sciences and technology in Latin America. She is currently dean of the Department of Biology at UNAM.

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