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Orfilio Peláez

NANOTECHNOLOGY, the driving force behind what many researchers see as the most important industrial development of the last 200 years, was initially developed by different branches of the military industry within a small group of highly industrialized countries, led by the United States, which had the resources to invest and the desire to maintain its position of global power.

This effort, which is little discussed and currently subsumed within strategic national initiatives, had as its main objectives the miniaturization of nuclear weapons; improved armor; new camouflage techniques and more effective, lighter bullet-proof vests to protect soldiers; and medications to control bleeding and treat injuries, in order to maintain the full fighting capacity of troops in the most difficult situations.

The term nanotechnology was coined in 1974 by Japanese scientist Norio Tamiguchi, using a new measurement system in which 1nm represents one millionth of a millimeter. Starting with the idea of creating new materials or changing the properties of existing ones by manipulating molecular structures at the nanometric level, the field progressively expanded into the aerospace, automobile, materials, electronics, communications, energy, health, food, environmental and cosmetics industries.

Over the last few years, Cuba has entered this promising, diminutive scientific world. To learn more about its impact and prospects internationally and within the country, Granma spoke with Dr. Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, scientific advisor to the Council of State.

"Nanotechnology has eliminated barriers in a way which just a few years ago would have been considered science fiction and is today making concrete progress in the design of more efficient technology to treat water, miniaturize integrated circuits used in computers and information processing and in the development of optimal strategies to conserve energy," he said.

"There are also promising results in the development of advanced diagnostic tools and new pharmaceuticals, capable of acting selectively at a specific site, making treatment more effective, with fewer side effects. Despite the results mentioned, the technology remains in the research and development stage, dominated by large U.S., European and Japanese companies."

What factors have led Cuba to enter the field, despite the country’s complex economic situation and the high costs involved?

The rate at which new knowledge and scientific innovations are emerging is so rapid that, if we do not now create the infrastructure needed to pursue selected goals and train experts to work in such a promising discipline, we run the risk of being irreversibly excluded from tomorrow’s world.

To be competitive and achieve sustainable future development, based on our intellectual production, nanotechnology cannot be ignored, since all basic sciences converge in the field, combining increasingly advanced technologies, bio-information, bio-engineering and other branches of knowledge, which will transform industry and the provision of services in the coming decades.

At the same time, Cuba has the advantage of having a broad base of scientists, engineers and highly qualified technicians in universities and research institutions, and in a network of world class institutions devoted to biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry, all located in the West Havana Scientific Complex and operating on the basis of a closed cycle concept including research, production and sales.

More than 70 new products have been developed within these institutions, including monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, medical equipment, diagnostic tools and medications, some of which are unique, such as Heberprot-P and Nimotuzumab, protected as industrial property, and have had a significant impact on the improvement of public health. Thus we have much of the way forward already in place, the prior knowledge needed and many scientific accomplishments attained.

It is understandable that nano-biotechnology and nano-medicine be the focal points of national efforts in this arena, given their social and economic impact, and the excellent public health system Cuba has developed. This does not mean we are turning our backs on the issues of energy, environmental studies and the related search for new materials. There are already centers such as the Molecular Immunology Center and the Immunoassay Center, which use this technology in their search for new drugs to treat cancer and to expand the number of illnesses which can be diagnosed with a blood sample using SUMA technology, respectively.

How is the Cuban Center for Advanced Studies (CEAC) progressing? What training does the staff there receive? Have the opinions of entities in the Ministries of Higher Education and of Science, Technology and Environment, with experience in the use of nanotechnology, been considered?

When CEAC was being conceptualized, opinions and recommendations were gathered from a group of leaders of institutions in the Scientific Complex, the University of Havana, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, to mention a few examples. It has been a collective project as a result of the participation of related actors, without any improvisation, preconceived notions or exclusions whatsoever.

International experience was also taken into consideration in the design of buildings, laboratories, the equipment to install and materials to use in the different areas, through collaboration and the support offered by foreign companies with prestige, experience and know-how in the field.

By 2013, the first stage of the investment process should be complete, based on the concept that it will be a multidisciplinary entity, devoted to the development of essential nano-technological applications in health care and, in an initial fashion, in the areas of environment and energy.

CEAC’s staff is composed primarily of young professionals who come from different universities, ranging from 25 to 30 years of age, many of whom are currently completing their studies with their own projects, which reflect the principle lines of investigation proposed as priorities for the center by diverse institutions.

Dr. Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart reported that the fusion of the Scientific Complex and the pharmaceutical industry is underway, based on the Policy Development Guidelines approved at the 6th Party Congress and the updating of Cuba’s economic model. To be created is a Central Enterprise Management Group, based on hi-tech companies with greater productivity, lower costs and better qualified personnel, capable of producing quality medications, equipment and services for the health care system and export.

Given the country’s previous work and the strategic vision of a plan to develop nanotechnology in Cuba, by 2020, the country should be positioned among the nations making a contribution to nanotechnology, principally in the area of nano-biotechnology, the eminent scientist concluded.

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Carlos Daley holds an executive certificate in Strategic management and business evaluation from Harvard University and a Masters in Financial Management from the University of Maryland.
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