Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

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Last Updated: February 1, 2004
Other Name: Centro de Ingenieria Genetica y Biotecnologia; CIGB
Location: Ciudad de La Habana; West of Havana; part of the "scientific pole"
Subordinate To: N/A
Size: Numerous labs, over 60,000 square meters of floor space
Facility Status: Unknown

Facilities

The facility has climatized laboratories, vivariums for different animal species, barrier zones and cold rooms (allowing for research with lethal or "sensitive" agents), two inactive BSL-4 laboratories (currently used for BSL-2 work), BSL-3 containment laboratories, seven BSL-2 laboratories, a radioisotope laboratory, solvent-purification laboratory, pilot plant (including an area for animals in a "controlled environment"), a production plant, and 2.5 hectares of cultivatable land along with 1,500 square meters of greenhouses.

Description

The first major achievement at CIGB involved cloning and expression of genes in Escherichia coli (E. coli) and yeast, yet by the beginning of the "special period," CIGB had already achieved success in the production of different recombinant proteins through "large-scale fermentation procedures," as well as the diagnosis by hybridization techniques of various viruses. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, CIGB focused on production of pharmaceuticals to meet domestic needs; however, after 1991, the Soviet Union was no longer subsidizing Cuban products, and Cuba began to emphasize exportable production. According to Jose de la Fuente, former director of research and development at CIGB (1991-1998), the most important discoveries made at the center were the "recombinant protein production technologies in yeast and E. coli," and "large-scale purification protocols for both soluble and insoluble proteins synthesized in or excreted by them." CIGB has been involved in the development of the meningitis B vaccine, Cuba's best-known bio-product. Currently, CIGB produces the hepatitis B vaccine, a tick "vaccine," epidermal growth factor, and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants, along with the well-known recombinant streptokinase formulated to dissolve blood clots during a heart-attack; the center also researches possible vaccines against dengue fever and cholera.

At the 2002 Havana International Biotechnology Congress, Carlos Borroto, deputy director of CIGB, discussed current agricultural-biotechnology projects, including the transgenesis (with modified genomes) of plants, making them more resistant to disease, along with production of biopesticides, fertilizers, and veterinarian vaccines. Following Cuba's unexpected success with interferon production in the 1980s, CIGB began to focus on improving downstream processing of bio-products, creating a pilot bioprocessing plant for this purpose. Groups within CIGB specialize both in the fermentation process and purification in bioprocessing, as well as researching methods to increase productivity.

According to the UN University publication Technology and Innovation in the International Economy, along with statements by Manuel Limonta, the center is divided into different sub-categories, with each division addressing specific areas of research and development:

  • Proteins and hormones: researchers use recombinant DNA to produce proteins for both human and veterinary medical applications. This furthers the work of the Center for Biological Research (CIB) on the chemical synthesis of oligonucleotides and DNA.
  • Vaccines and diagnostics: those involved work to develop vaccines against tropical and subtropical diseases plaguing Cuba by cloning the surface proteins of viruses, parasites, or bacteria. They are also involved in the development of monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies and DNA probes for disease detection and diagnosis.
  • Energy and biomass: researchers work on the "transformation of various kinds of biomass via chemical methods and enzymes." This is an extension of the work done at the Cuban Institute for Sugarcane Research (ICIDCA) and National Center for Scientific Research (CENIC).
  • Plants and fertilizers: this group researches "improved plant varieties using genetic engineering and biotechnology."
  • Mammalian cell genetics: researchers use "cells of higher organisms to clone genes for protein production."
  • Computer division: this allows for the "control and supervision of the fermentation process."
  • Quality control: according to Manuel Limonta, this division serves to verify "purity, structural integrity, molecular composition, functioning, clinical and pharmacologic properties as well as immunologic response and undesirable side effects... Protein verification is carried out according to the most advanced gene and amino acid sequencing techniques...."

In order to produce such products, CIGB has imported much of the equipment necessary to develop a mature biotechnology sector. Beginning with the import of high-grade microscopes and protein purification equipment from Japan, Cuba has since obtained three 10,000 RPM centrifuges, large-scale fermenters with downstream processing equipment, ion mass spectrometers, ultra-violet infrared spectrometers, electophoresis equipment, gamma counters, DNA synthesizers, and drying and milling machines. During the October 2002 visit to the center by representatives from the Center for Defense Information, the representatives observed high-resolution electron microscopy, DNA sequencers and oligonucleotide assemblers, along with magnetic resonance facilities.

CIGB is an open research facility, displayed to foreign dignitaries and scientists traveling to Cuba. CIGB is currently involved in technology transfers with countries such as Iran, China, and India; some of this activity has raised suspicions as to the true nature of these transfers. Heber Biotec is the marketing arm of CIGB, leading Cuba's effort to export vaccines and medical equipment.

CIGB's website has a disclaimer on the homepage stating that the center is not engaged in biological warfare production, followed by a one-page statement of the same, written by Luis Herrera Martinez.

CIGB has a sophisticated intranet capability (CIGBnet), connecting all five branches of the organization, which serves "to process the information produced and consumed by CIGB."

Sources:
[1] Manuel Limonta, "Biotechnology and the Third World: Development Strategies in Cuba," Biomedical Science and the Third World, ed., Barry Bloom and Anthony Cerami, (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1989), pp. 325-333.
[2] Charles Cooper (ed), Technology and Innovation in the International Economy (Maastricht, Holland: Edward Elgar- United Nations University Press, 1994), p. 2.4.4.
[3] Manuel Cereijo, "Summary of Cuba's biotechnology capacity," Net for Cuba International, www.netforcuba.org.
[4] Manuel Cereijo, "Cuba: The Threat," GlobalSecurity.org.
[5] Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cuba to the United Nations, Republic of Cuba Submitted Pursuant to Paragraph 6 of Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001).
[6] Glenn Baker (ed.), Cuban biotechnology: A first-hand report, Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 20 May 2003.
[7] "CIGB Intranet," Internet Society, 1997, www.isoc.org.
[8] CIGB website, www.cigb.edu.cu.

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