By Walkiria Juanes Sánchez – Mar 20, 2021
“We are good for our own sake, and because deep inside we feel pleasure in doing something good, or in saying something useful, for others. That’s better than being a prince—being useful.” From the last page of La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age), by José Martí.
Daniel, a Cuban in love with science, a father, husband, son, born and bred in Villa Clara, but now an adoptive son of Havana, found this feeling, described by Martí more than 100 years ago in La Edad de Oro, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Daniel Garcia Rivera, with a doctorate in Chemical Science, who is Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Chemical Synthesis at the University of Havana for projects undertaken in conjunction with the CubaBioFarma enterprise group and co-directed by the Center for Investigation and Development of Medications (CIDEM), forms part of the multi-disciplinary team of scientists who, together with the Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV), developed the Cuban anti-COVID-19 vaccine Soberana 02.
“I was a visiting research scholar in Belgium, without being able to return to Cuba; I had to remain there because of the pandemic. Since we have years of experience collaborating with the Finlay Institute and with CubaBioFarma, they called me via WhatsApp and they said, ‘Daniel, we need to conjugate this molecule, this viral protein, with this other one,’ at a very specific site where it would not alter the part of the molecule that is recognized by our immune system. I’m saying it like this to explain it in a simple way but that was the scientific challenge,” commented Dr. Garcia Rivera in an interview with Naturaleza Secreta. The group of experts, led by him, “specializes in the modification of peptide chains, proteins, molecules and bio-molecules, for uses in vaccines and therapeutic agents.”
In the interview he said, “my group stopped doing anything else and dedicated ourselves to find a technical solution to the scientific problem that they had: to carry out a chemical reaction joining the two proteins, in which a protein of viral origin would form a covalent bond to another protein of bacterial origin so that the conjugate protein would be capable of eliciting a powerful immune response, so that we would be protected against this conjugate protein.”
The doctor went on to say, “We must consider that a protein is a very complex molecule. It’s like a forest of royal palm trees where there are millions of trees, and you have to cut one down without touching any of the others, without changing the forest, which was very important so that our organism can recognize it and mount a protective immunologic response.”
“Initially it was very difficult for us until we were able to suggest a method to the leaders of the Finlay Institute, how the protein could be activated and united. The forest could be modified only where we needed it to be, and nowhere else. I feel a lot of satisfaction about the fact that the sacrifice of these months has not been in vain,” the scientist noted.
Dr. Daniel Garcia explained that Soberana 02 is a very innovative vaccine, which relies a great deal on chemistry. “To develop a vaccine, as everyone can imagine, one needs microbiology, biochemistry, etc., and the role of chemistry to delineate the characterization of the molecule: what we understand about the molecule, how it behaves, how we modify it, how we join it covalently to another molecule, which is one of the challenges of making this vaccine. It’s a marvelous technology and what our group could offer was the knowledge and the university-business collaboration,” Dr. Garcia pointed out.
Cuban University at the heart of a vaccine
Soberana 02 was set on the path to success in scientific collaboration, in a joint effort with the university. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez has insisted on the integration of the seats of higher learning with all the processes in the country, a correct direction that has shown its value in confronting COVID-19.
”The most beautiful part of the vaccine project is that, for the first time, we have felt that we have been able to apply all the knowledge that we have accumulated to something with practical use, something real. I am grateful to the Finlay Institute that they gave the Molecular Chemical Synthesis Laboratory of the University of Havana, and my group specifically, the opportunity to collaborate in this challenge of making a vaccine that will save our country, and save societies wherever it is used,” Dr. Garcia emphasized. “I am sure that the Finlay Institute could have done this alone, with the expertise that their researchers have. Probably it would have taken them a little longer. However, with an alliance with the university, with a group with specific expertise proved useful for the development of the vaccine, and that accelerated the process a great deal and, in a few months, we have arrived at a vaccine candidate—Soberana 02—that has very significant immunological properties.”
In BioCubaFarma, the interviewer noted, it is quite evident that university collaboration is necessary. Within the actual dynamic of an enterprise, in real or strategic questions, sometimes collaboration is seen as something distant, that can be fruitful in training doctors and scientists, but not in working together to find a product.
COVID-19 made the need for greater collaboration apparent and, as a result, we are setting out guidelines on a national level, not just with planning, but for having the university be part of the team that develops the product; not just giving occasional advice or training scientists, but rather having our researchers participate from the beginning in the projects, from that the country will have the benefits of sale of the products and of the social recognition that accompanies project development, he noted.
“I have modified my scientific ambitions. The university judges you by the scientific articles that you publish, by the knowledge that you have, by the scientists that you train, by the good classes that you teach. However, my personal ambition to be a great scientist changed: from wanting to do something that appears in an article to wanting to do something that appears in a vial of final product, in a vaccine, for example.”
Dr. Garcia went on to say that we have a number of projects, with the Center for Investigation and Development of Medications, with the Finlay Vaccine Institute, and with other centers, some short term and others long term, like the creation of therapeutic vaccines against cancers, in the case of the Center for Molecular Immunology, and of anticancer and antimicrobial agents. The group visualizes the importance of the research that we have to do, directed toward the search for technological solutions for pharmaceutical products. This is the way in which we will guarantee that Cuba will support us financially, and will create a laboratory for us, and it is the way that BioCubaFarma will recognize the technological validity of this and support the newly emerging collaborations which grow and turn into projects.
“My family says that I am the fruit of the University of Havana. I owe a great deal to the university and I want to dedicate my scientific life to this institution.”
The Cuban vaccine is uniquely Cuban
“Cuba, from the scientific and medical point of view, has been prepared for a pandemic like this, with the Cuban healthcare system, of prevention, but also the biotech and the pharmaceutical industries. Cuba demonstrated that, faced with a challenge like COVID-19 in which it was necessary to make a new vaccine in the period of one year, the country had the scientific personnel trained to develop technologies and make our own vaccine,” he emphasized.
“The Cuban vaccine is unique in the world, with its own technology. We must have scientific clarity: the Cuban vaccine is purely Cuban. Cuba based it on what we already had, and supported this with international collaboration. Our country has many friends who support us. Anyone who believes that Cuba is isolated scientifically and that outside our borders we have only enemies and critics is very mistaken,” he affirmed.
In Dr. Garcia’s opinion, after Soberana 02 and the COVID-19 pandemic, the country will emerge into a better position. Cuba, once again, has demonstrated that it has a powerful, responsible, organized healthcare system and an excellent research system that can respond to any scientific challenge that presents itself. “I can guarantee you that Cuba has the technology and the knowledge to confront and to produce a vaccine against anything, and will able to develop its own therapeutic agents against cancer, its own antibiotics, etc.” he commented.
Family as the center that creates love of science
Dr. Daniel Garcia’s sister is Dr. Dagmar Garcia Rivera, Director of Research of the Finlay Vaccine Institute, and they would not be the outstanding scientists that they are without the example of their parents, especially Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Cuevas, recently recognized with an honorary doctorate from the Central University of Las Villas.
“Concerning my sister, I think that, yes, there is a risk that she may want to continue bossing me around, it’s a big risk, above all because she’s the Director of Research of an institution larger than this laboratory; it’s an institute that we will always continue to collaborate with. But, well, I have been able to deal with this for 40 years and I will continue to handle it,” joked Dr. Daniel Garcia Rivera.
Featured image: Dr. Daniel Garcia Rivera, Photo: Naturaleza Secreta