Cigars, rum and classic American automobiles have grown synonymous with Cuba's tourism scene.
For medical professionals visiting from around the world, the island nation holds another unique appeal — Cuba's pharmaceutical and immunology industries have developed breakthrough treatments for diseases such as lung cancer and diabetes.
"There are some amazing things going on in Cuba," said David Kalin, a family practitioner in Tampa. "We need to know more. We should know more."
Later this month, Kalin heads to Havana with a delegation of more than a dozen health professionals from throughout the nation, including at least six from the Tampa Bay area.
They will meet with counterparts to learn more about Cuba's medical industry and discuss potential collaborations — an initiative made possible by the White House move in December 2014 toward normalization of relations between the two nations after five decades of isolation.
"We are in a position to learn what the Cuban and the American medical professions have in common," said Gus Weekley, a general surgeon in Tampa who is part of the delegation.
Over the course of the trip, American and Cuban doctors will give presentations on their work and speak informally on the fields including psychiatry, ophthalmology, gynecology, cardiology, dermatology and cosmetic and orthopedic surgery.
"Maybe some sort of partnership will start," Kalin said. "Maybe it won't happen for five years. But we will know who is working in Cuba and what they are doing so when the time comes to reach out, we know who to reach out to."
Such partnerships are easier now thanks to further relaxation of U.S. restrictions that were announced Oct. 14. A blanket exemption now covers joint medical research between the United States and Cuba for academic and commercial reasons, allowing American companies to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for Cuban pharmaceuticals.
Previously, American medical interests needed consent from the U.S. Treasury Department — a cumbersome process that frustrated many applicants.
President-elect Donald Trump has promised to reverse Obama's executive orders on Cuba policy. Whether Trump will see a benefit in allowing medical collaborations is unknown.
That Cuba, a nation known for its struggling economy, could have anything to offer the medical industry of a superpower like the United States may seem counter intuitive.
But it's true, insists Antonio C. Martinez II, chief operating officer of New York-based consulting firm Cuban Strategic Partnerships.
"They make their own pharmaceuticals, immunizations and vaccines and in some areas, do it better than the U.S.," said Martinez, a diabetic who in December will be speaking at an international conference in Havana focused on the disease.
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Heberprot-P is one example. A treatment for diabetic foot ulcers, the drug was shown in Cuban studies to reduce the relative risk of amputation by 70 percent, said Gail Reed, founder of Oakland-based nonprofit MEDICC —Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba.
"This is critical medication for the United States where some 73,000 amputations result each year from diabetic foot ulcer complications," Reed said.
Then there is CIMAvax, a Cuban vaccine for those with advanced lung cancer that increases patient survival an average of nine to 12 months and for over five years in 23 percent of cases, said Kelvin Lee, chairman of the Department of Immunology at Buffalo-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The institute begins FDA trials on CIMAvax within the next month.
"No matter what you think of the Obama administration or the Castros, nobody votes for cancer," Lee said. "Having a cancer therapy that would benefit American patients is a win."
Meantime, there is a call by some medical interests for the U.S. government to further relax its policies and allow for Americans to travel there for treatment.
"This is a travesty," said Reed with MEDICC. "Diseases know no borders, neither should cooperation."
The prospect of medical tourism intrigues Kalin, leader of the Tampa doctors' delegation and head of the International Board of Medicine and Surgery — a group that certifies doctors for patients seeking health care in other countries.
"The world is becoming more global," Kalin said. "Americans travel to India, South Korea, eastern Europe — everywhere — in search of less expensive procedures or for procedures we do not offer here.
"Why should a nation as close as Cuba be blocked if they can help Americans?"
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.