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Distributed Drug Discovery (D3) Takes its Global Collaborations to Cuba

Since 2005 IUPUI's Distributed Drug Discovery program has established multiple collaborations between our department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and schools across the globe. These contacts have been with students and/or professors in Poland, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic and Kenya, as well as at multiple schools across the United States. Now it has been implemented in Cuba. D3 has three goals:

  1. To educate science students world-wide in chemistry and biology.
  2. To engage students in a global project seeking drugs to treat neglected diseases.
  3. To build, around science education and an important humanitarian challenge, personal relationships and understanding to bridge cultural, political and geographic boundaries.

Most recently D3 has expanded to the Caribbean, with a one week workshop in Cuba and another planned for Puerto Rico. The Cuban workshop was perfectly in keeping with these D3 goals. In October 2016 I traveled with two IUPUI undergraduate students, Priya Dave and Juan Sanchez, to the University of Havana in Cuba. There, together with four of my colleagues - Profs Amy Dounay from Colorado College, Amelia Fuller from Santa Clara University, and IUPUI colleagues Marty O'Donnell and Geno Samaritoni (who participated remotely from Indy) - we conducted a workshop called the "Ernest Eliel Workshop - US and Cuba Collaboration in Chemistry Education and Neglected Disease Drug Discovery". I organized the workshop with my Cuban host, Dr. Daniel Garcia Rivera. Daniel and I first met at a Boston ACS National Meeting symposium on US-Cuba collaborations. It was immediately clear that our shared synthetic chemistry expertise, interest in drug discovery, and passion for education and dialog would be fertile ground for a US-Cuba D3 collaboration. This led to a successful ACS Global Innovation grant application, which supported the workshop in Cuba, with additional funding from IUPUI's School of Science.

D3 in Cuba: Education - Lectures

Over a one week period we educated, through lectures and laboratory work, Cuban students in chemistry and biology while these students applied that understanding to address a serious humanitarian challenge - discovering drugs for neglected diseases (diseases which lack a profit incentive for traditional pharmaceutical research). Lectures ranged from macroscopic overviews of the drug discovery process, both scientific and economic, to more detailed presentations of the skills and scientific understanding required to effectively carry out discovery research.

D3 in Cuba: Application - Workshop laboratory seeking drugs to treat antibiotic resistant infections

The laboratory portion utilized one of IUPUI's Distributed Drug Discovery (D3) synthetic procedures. The combinatorial solid-phase chemistry and simple, inexpensive equipment enabled students to make many new molecules for testing. They made 22 potential antibiotics which were then submitted to the open-access resource CO-ADD (community for open access antimicrobial drug discovery) for antimicrobial evaluation. In the process students learned the principles of combinatorial chemistry, the practice of solid-phase organic synthesis, purification of products by column chromatography, and characterization by liquid chromatography/mass spectral analysis and nuclear magnetic resonance.

D3 in Cuba: Building cross-cultural relationships

D3's third goal is to build, around science education and an important humanitarian challenge, personal relationships and understanding to help bridge cultural, political and geographic boundaries. In an environment of intense education, a beautiful country, and warm camaraderie, this was a simple goal to fulfill. Through work and play deep and lasting bonds of respect and understanding were formed between students and professors from the US and Cuba.

Between students

One of the most gratifying aspects of the D3 Cuban experience was witnessing the natural interactions taking place between US and Cuban students. To assist in the laboratory portion of the Cuban workshop we brought with us three students from the US - Priya Dave and Juan Sanchez from IUPUI, and Dan Tiano from Santa Clara University. All three speak Spanish, and Priya and Juan helped us translate the chemistry laboratory procedures into Spanish. They were also experts in carrying out these experimental procedures. This made them invaluable in helping oversee the laboratory component of the workshop. As they did this they gained confidence and experience as teachers, while building deep relationships with their Cuban colleagues based on contact in the laboratory environment and casual social interactions off-hours. Through social media Priya, Juan and Dan continue to stay in contact with their Cuban student friends. Their intimate involvement in IUPUI's workshop and its success was described and honored in an article, "ACS in Cuba" in the American Chemical Society's C&ENews (C&EN | CEN.ACS.ORG | November 28, 2016, p. 38).

Priya, Juan and Dan also wrote about their Cuban experience, both scientific and social, in a major section of a book chapter they co-authored, "Ernest Eliel Workshop - US and Cuba Collaboration in Chemistry Education and Neglected Disease Drug Discovery", (Cheng et al.; Stereochemistry and Global Connectivity: The Legacy of Ernest L. Eliel Volume 1 ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2017).

Between students and professors

Every day of the workshop students and professors gathered together during coffee breaks, lunches, and after-hour tours of Havana, and one day at a reception at the home of our host Daniel. These were wonderful opportunities, outside of lectures and laboratories, for us to learn more about each other.

Developing permanent bonds

After returning home to Indianapolis I hosted Daniel's visit to the United States. He had an opportunity to see our department and campus, and give lectures both here and at Lilly.  Later I took him to Notre Dame to see that campus and meet some of my colleagues there. We finished our visit with a trip to Chicago so he could see another side of the Midwest (and shop at T.J.Maxx to replace a belt he had lost!).

While he was in Indianapolis he stayed in our home giving him the opportunity to return the educational experience by teaching me and my wife how to make Mojito's - experiment successful!

Tensions between the US and Cuba governments hinder scientific collaborations

I looked forward to seeing Daniel again this spring. We were scheduled to present back to back talks on "US-Cuba Collaborations in Chemical Education" at the recent National ACS meeting in New Orleans, March 19, 2018. Unfortunately, Daniel and all the other Cuban colleagues scheduled to present talks couldn't attend. They were unable to obtain visas from the US Embassy in Cuba. Because of recent tensions between the US and Cuba the embassy has been reduced to a skeleton staff and will not process any non-emergency visa applications. I hope these high level issues can be resolved soon, that way scientists/students from both countries can continue working together to build relationships, both personal and scientific, based on first-hand experience of common interests, understanding and trust.

Continuing involvement with Cuba and D3 future in the Caribbean

I can still get a visa to travel to Cuba. Daniel and I will continue our collaboration. He has invited me to a Latin-American conference in Havana this coming October and we are working on a proposal to develop a new D3 laboratory based on a combination of his published work and a published synthetic sequence developed by me and my IUPUI colleague, Marty O'Donnell. I look forward to continuing these D3 initiatives with the help of our IUPUI students. Possibly again in Cuba in 2018 or 2019? Next time in Puerto Rico?

Story written by: William L. Scott