From Cuba to Canada: A reunion of friendship and research at UAlberta

As young scientists, Carlos Fernandez-Patron and Eugenio Hardy’s paths converged in Havana in the early 1990s at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Cuba’s leading institution for biotech research, production and commercialization.

 Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, Cuba 

They pursued their doctoral research in the same laboratory, with the same supervisor, at the CIGB (the centre’s Spanish acronym) and also shared a somewhat unusual academic history—both were educated as physicists first and became protein chemists before eventually building impressive careers in biochemistry and biotechnology.

The two researchers went their separate ways in 1997 when Fernandez-Patron came to the University of Alberta for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and Hardy stayed at the CIGB, but their connection remained strong.

“Our collaboration has been forever, since we were students and workers at our previous institution (CIGB) it has never ended, and we have been in contact for long periods, sometimes with more intensity, sometimes with less, because we had different paths after finishing our PhDs,” says Hardy, sitting in an office in Fernandez-Patron’s lab at the U of A’s Medical Sciences Building.    

A reunion two decades in the making

In the 20 years since Fernandez-Patron moved to Edmonton, has progressed through the ranks from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor (he was promoted in November 2017) in the U of A’s Department of Biochemistry. Fernandez-Patron is a researcher in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry’s Cardiovascular Research Centre and in 2015 founded the ‘MMP consortium,’ an informal pan-departmental seminar series to discuss advances in the biology of matrix metalloproteinases(MMPs). Hardy, who stayed at CIGB until 2010 before transitioning to the University of Havana’s Institute of Pharmacy and Foods, played an instrumental role in advancing Cuba’s small but mighty biotech sector.

Recently, the former colleagues collaborated remotely on a paper—which Fernandez-Patron describes as “a fun paper, just ideas about how we think science should be published”—and it sparked an idea. What if they could reunite here at the U of A, work side by side for a few months, and lay the groundwork for a more substantial research collaboration?

 Fernandez-Patron (left) and Hardy (right) in Edmonton
“Exchanging ideas, trying to write papers and design projects—it’s very difficult to do that from the distance, and Eugenio has limited resources to access internet in Cuba,” says Fernandez-Patron. “I thought that if he came for a short time, he would actually learn firsthand what ideas we’re developing in the lab, so when he goes back (to Havana) he has a reference point.”

The leadership of the Department of Biochemistry and Fernandez-Patron reached out to the University of Alberta International (UAI) office to ask for help in bringing Hardy to Edmonton for a five-month research stay. While UAI does not normally provide funding to bring international scholars to campus, the office decided to make an exception in the case of Hardy and supplement the funds that Fernandez-Patron had received from his department.

“It was self-evident that somebody from Cuba would not be able to find alternative sources of funding, and Cuba in that sense was a very special case,” explains Britta Baron, Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (International) at the U of A.

Another factor in UAI’s decision to cover a portion of the cost of Hardy’s stay was the fact that Baron and her colleagues were familiar with Cuba’s reputation for producing innovative scientists and remarkable research despite limited resources.

“There’s a lot of talent in Cuba, and it would actually be in our own interest to tap into those pools of academic excellence and talent better and build some foundation for ongoing collaboration—which of course will help the Cuban researchers, but it’s ultimately in our interest as well,” says Baron. “Eugenio Hardy is really a stellar scholar, and we saw that there would be some real academic benefit for the University of Alberta.”


Explaining Cuba’s scientific success

For those not familiar with Cuba’s investment in scientific research, it may come as a surprise to hear that the island nation has excelled over the last few decades at creating low-cost vaccines, developing cancer treatments and screening infants for disorders.

At the CIGB in Havana—where Fernandez-Patron and Hardy first met as young researchers—more than 20 products have been commercialized internationally, including a Hepatitis B vaccine. And earlier this year, Cuban biologists were in the news when a cancer research and treatment centre in Buffalo, N.Y., began conducting the first-ever U.S. clinical trial of a Cuban-made therapy. The therapy in question, a Cuban lung cancer vaccine called CIMAvax-EGF, has already been approved as a therapy for the treatment of lung cancer in other countries and has resulted in improved quality of life and overall survival rates for patients.

For a developing nation that has had its access to specialized scientific equipment, international grants and potential research collaborators hampered by a U.S. trade embargo since 1962, Cuba has logged impressive gains in health-related research.

Fernandez-Patron and Hardy chalk this up to a few factors: Cuba’s universal literacy and education requirement, consistent and relatively generous government support for biomedical research, a national spirit of resilience and resourcefulness, and the fact that government-subsidized scientific research in Cuba has been tied to national interests like public health, agricultural research and energy since the ‘60s.

“It’s not a rich country. So we had to develop our minds to focus on really important problems, like health,” says Hardy. “We cannot compete with really developed countries in basic science, obviously—when you go to the universities in Cuba you will see it’s not possible to compete. But when you see science as a big social enterprise, you see that when you join resources, you can have something great.”


A foundation for future collaboration

During his time as a visiting scientist in the Fernandez-Patron Lab, Hardy delivered a seminar at the Cardiovascular Research Centre on his own research and became familiar with Fernandez-Patron’s current research, which focuses on the discovery by his research team of a cardiac secreted enzyme (known as cardiac sPLA2) and its effects on lipid metabolism and inflammation in the liver.

“This is research that deserves help,” says Hardy. “Anything I can do for that, I will.”

Both men anticipate that this visit, which marked Hardy’s first time in Canada, will be the beginning of a new chapter in their decades-long relationship. “Eugenio is a very talented, intelligent individual. The hardest working person I’ve ever met, and probably one of the most capable researchers you can find to collaborate with,” says Fernandez-Patron. “I truly hope that we can continue this collaboration.”

Hardy plans to share what he’s learned at the U of A with his students at the University of Havana and encourage them to consider coming here for short-term visits, graduate studies or postdoctoral work. “I hope we find ways to allow that, at least for training visits,” says Fernandez-Patron. “I think that would be of benefit to both the students at the University of Havana and to us in the department.”