WEEKEND FEATURE: ‘Venomous hope’ for Cuba cancer drug

by Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Cuba, November 30, 2007 – With equal doses of caution and hope, Cuban researchers are moving forward with studies to test the cancer-fighting properties of the toxin produced by the blue scorpion (Rhopalurus junceus), a species endemic to this Caribbean island.

“We are concluding the studies of pre-clinical research in order to obtain registration and approval from Cuba’s regulatory entities to begin clinical trials on humans,” said microbiologist Alexis Díaz, chief of the research team at Labiofam, a biological pharmaceutical laboratory.

The company is heading the research, in collaboration with the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute and the Havana Oncology Hospital. Patients arrive at its doors each day, from within Cuba and abroad, seeking the unusual product that comes from scorpion venom.

“I came here in April 2007, after undergoing an operation for a malignant lesion in the tonsils. I began by drinking a dose twice a day of the toxin diluted in 250 millilitres of water, and within two months I began to notice an improvement. I can now eat on my own, I’ve gained weight and I’m an active person again,” says Pedro Gutiérrez, a 45-year-old lawyer.

Many patients tell of similar experiences with traditional uses of the venom, studied initially by scientists in Guantánamo, in eastern Cuba. Since the mid-1990s, the product has been trademarked as Escozul, a name that could change in the future.

Hesitant to make firm predictions, Díaz stressed that a long road lies ahead. “We have a history of treating patients, both Cuban and foreign, in which data has been collected, verifying the product’s pharmacological effect. But these are not studies that provide scientific proof of its properties in patients with tumours,” he explained.

The pre-clinical research began in 2000 to determine the venom’s anti-tumour action. The toxin is also said to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. “All of that must be subject to clinical tests that are tightly regulated and controlled,” he said.

Neysa Verges, chief of the Labiofam medical group, noted that since 2000 they have treated more than 8,000 patients with all kinds of tumours. “In a general sense, if they don’t reach the final stage of their disease, we obtain good results. In serious cases, at least we help them improve their quality of life,” she said.

People come to Labiofam with copies of their clinical histories and they receive the product free of charge. It is explained to them that the treatment involves a natural pharmaceutical that is in the research phase, that it does not present negative interactions with other treatments, and does not have adverse side effects.

The patient’s reaction depends on many factors. “People with the same pathology may respond in very different ways. Age, the degree of the lesion, the localisations of metastasis and even emotional state have an influence, because if a patient is psychologically depressed the immune system won’t function properly,” commented Verges.

To respond to the needs of the research and of the patients, Labiofam’s strategy includes boosting production by raising the blue scorpion in captivity. Scorpion farms already are operating in nearly all of Cuba’s provinces.

From each scorpion about three drops of venom are extracted every month using electrical jolts. “Even though it’s our desire to help, for now we don’t have the possibility of giving the venom to all the people who need it,” said Judith Rodríguez, a research specialist with the company.

And Verges clarified that Labiofam has not established links with airlines nor does it have offices or representatives in other countries that could apply for contracts to coordinate trips to Cuba for prospective patients seeking the formula. (IPS/IFEJ)