OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Niurka Margarita Carlos Pías, director general of the Immunoassay Center. Photo: Yander Zamora

In the early 1970s, a group of doctors, under the guidance of Dr. José Luis Fernández Yero, began working on the design of technology for the prenatal diagnosis of congenital anomalies, without risks to the mother, in the laboratories of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNIC).

The objective was to equip the country with a system capable of detecting abnormalities in the fetus with a marked incidence in infant mortality, during early pregnancy.

The preliminary results of the novel project (already by the end of 1978 they had developed a technique that made it possible to diagnose the most severe anomalies in amniotic fluid samples) were presented at an exposition held in July 1981, at the Palacio de la Revolución, devoted to reflecting diverse scientific developments applied to medicine.

With the development of the SumAutoLab equipment, complete automation of SUMA Technology was achieved. Pictured are engineer Abel Toledano Hernández and MSc. Darien Ortega León. Photo: Yander Zamora

As Dr. Fernández Yero told Granma, the event provided the opportunity to explain to Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro the work they were doing; they even showed him photos of children born with different types of defects.

After watching them in silence for a few seconds, the leader of the Revolution said: “Just one of these cases that is detected and can be avoided is worth all the effort made.”

He immediately instructed them to validate the procedure and extend it to every corner of the country. Thus, under Fidel’s permanent guidance, the following year the Ultramicroanalytic System, known as SUMA Technology, was established.

While the first equipment and computer programs were created in the CNIC, the favorable results of the analyses carried out led to the approval in January, 1986, of the construction of a new institution capable of assuming production of the required reagents and technologies on an industrial scale.

Built in just 19 months, on September 7, 1987, Fidel inaugurated the Immunoassay Center (CIE), charged with the mission of promoting the design and production of technologies for the mass screening of different diseases.

Fully convinced of its enormous potential, the Comandante en Jefe wrote that day in the new facility’s visitors’ book: “This center is a real jewel of which we are proud. Congratulations to all its workers. Our people expect a lot from them.”

A CRUSADE FOR LIFE

CIE founder and Director General for the last five years, MSc. Niurka Margarita Carlos Pías, noted that the greatest achievement of the institution lies in having worked for thirty years to improve the health of the Cuban people, with relevant scientific contributions of great social impact.

She emphasized that at present the Immunoassay Center provides the fundamental technological support for important national health programs, such as maternal and infant care.

“For example, through the use of SUMA Technology, the country was able to carry out tests for the early diagnosis of congenital hypothyroidism on all Cuban infants born after 1986. At the end of 2016, a total of 3,957,923 babies were tested, of which 917 had the condition.

“Once the condition was confirmed, they were immediately given the recommended medical treatment, thus preventing them from growing with severe mental impairment (cretinism). Today, most live a normal life and are incorporated into society,” the CIE director explained.

It is worth noting that Cuba was the second nation in the Americas to develop a complete congenital hypothyroidism screening program, after Canada and before the United States.

Also noteworthy are the results obtained in the prenatal diagnosis of congenital anomalies (Cuban alpha-fetoprotein program), through which a total of 4,349,951 pregnant women were tested between 1982 and December 2016, with 8,842 congenital anomalies incompatible with life detected.

This allowed for the termination of the pregnancy, in cases where the parents so decided, and was a significant contribution in reducing the island’s infant mortality rate and maintaining it among the lowest internationally. It is also worth highlighting that Cuba was the second country in the world to launch a nationwide alpha-fetoprotein screening program.

Affiliated with the BioCubaFarma business group, the CIE has 418 workers and 26 different types of reagent test kits to diagnose 19 different conditions, which together with those already mentioned include hepatitis B and C, HIV, dengue fever, cystic fibrosis, Chagas disease, and leprosy, among others.

The number of laboratories using SUMA Technology in Cuba now stands at 1,562, while 546 operate with this technology abroad, mainly in Latin America and Asia.

According to Niurka Margarita, cancer and chronic noncommunicable diseases are today issues of the highest priority in the Immunoassay Center’s investigations, as they constitute one of the main causes of death in Cuba.

The fundamental efforts are directed toward research and development of new procedures for the early detection of some of these diseases, in order to increase the possibilities of controlling them, and to significantly reduce mortality rates.

Among innovations are the glucometers and biosensors developed by the Center to measure blood glucose levels, which facilitate diabetic patients’ self-analysis at home, and the UMELISA Microalbumin test for the prevention of chronic renal failure.

The UMELISA test was used by 187 SUMA laboratories distributed throughout the Cuban archipelago in 2016.

Also significant are the UMELISA PSA analysis, which is extremely useful in the early diagnosis of prostate cancer (extended to the 15 provinces of the island and the special municipality of the Isle of Youth); the SUMASOHF specific rapid test for the detection of occult human hemoglobin in feces, a predictor of colon cancer; and the SUMASCOPE system, aimed at improving the quality of detection, early diagnosis, and treatment of uterine cervical carcinoma.

Each piece of equipment, technology, test kit and other products produced by the institution were designed using its own intellectual resources. Thanks to their introduction and nationwide distribution, many lives have been saved and the development of terrible diseases in children has been prevented, providing happiness and peace to countless Cuban families. It is impossible to measure in monetary terms the impact of so many human and social benefits.

For Niurka, heading the Immunoassay Center requires great commitment, ensuring that its workers continue faithful to the mission entrusted to them by Fidel: to always do science in favor of the wellbeing of the population.