TAMPA — People who are working in Tampa and Havana on the fight against cancer say they have a lot to learn from one another.
And now, with relations between their two countries expanding, if still tentative, they're ready to formalize a partnership.
For the last 18 months, cooperation has occurred below the radar for Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and two centers in Cuba — the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology and the Center of Molecular Immunology.
Surgeons from Cuba have visited Moffitt to study its treatment for pediatric bone cancer and Moffitt researchers have traveled to Cuba to learn how cancer scientists there break new ground with limited resources.
Against a politically divisive backdrop, with Florida interests including Gov. Rick Scott criticizing the Obama-era outreach to Cuba, Moffitt has declined to talk about its work with Cuba.
Now, officials at the Tampa center acknowledge they drafted a memorandum of understanding with their Cuban counterparts and it was submitted to the Cuban government a year ago. They still await a decision — patiently, they say.
"The memorandum broadly describes that we want to collaborate on research and education," said David de La Parte, executive vice president at Moffitt. "Once approved, we can have a more intensive discussion around what we might do . . . to benefit patients around the world and to advance science."
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa also pursued joint research with Havana's National Aquarium and waited two years for Cuban government approval.
An estimated 24 staffers from Tampa and Havana have been involved in visits as part of the Moffitt effort, de La Parte said.
On some occasions, they attended conferences together. Other times, doctors have shadowed their counterparts.
That a nation like Cuba with a struggling economy has anything to offer top researchers in the United States might come as a surprise, de La Parte said.
In fact, Cuba has much to offer, he said — in part because of its underdog status.
Most notably, the Center of Molecular Immunology developed CIMAvax, a vaccine that extends and improves the quality of life for those with advanced lung cancer.
Gail Reed, editor of MEDICC Review, a journal dedicated to publishing Cuban scientists, said the Havana center has also developed treatments for brain cancer in children and for cancer in the pancreas, head and neck.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," Reed said. "Cuban leaders saw that without abundant natural resources or stable agricultural prices, investing in science and scientists was key to securing the population's health."
CIMAvax is undergoing clinical trials in the United States through the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
"Roswell Park were quicker on their feet than we were and it frankly agitated some of us," Moffitt's de La Parte said. "Here is this cancer center in New York that has a relationship with a country in our back yard."
Roswell began pursuing a partnership with the Center of Molecular Immunology in 2011 and made it official in April 2015.
Moffitt representatives didn't visit Cuba until May 2015, after executive orders from the Obama administration made scientific collaboration between the former Cold War adversaries easier to pursue.
Still, the state of Florida isn't on board with expanded cooperation involving Cuba. Opposition nationwide is at its strongest in South Florida, home to many who lost property and businesses nationalized by Cuba's Communist government.
Gov. Scott has stopped the state's ports from signing memorandums with Cuba by threatening to withhold state money.
And Moffitt relies heavily on state funding — $7.1 million worth from two grant programs last year alone. So does the Florida Aquarium, which received $1 million from the state last year.
Partnering with Cuba could prove divisive, de La Parte admits, but he believes the medical and scientific benefits outweigh political considerations.
"We are not going to proceed in a way that will violate any kind of regulations," he said. "Hopefully this is something that can be celebrated by our supporters, and the governor is one of our supporters."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.