Pittsburgh sees dividends from its diplomacy with Cuba

A group of local amateur boxers will face their Cuban counterparts Saturday in a match on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. That’s one result of a Pittsburgh-led “citizen diplomacy” visit to the island nation last fall.

Another result of that diplomatic effort is taking place inside a Duquesne University laboratory, where a scientist who was on the same trip is working to deepen academic ties with the University of Havana, recruiting one of its students to help with his research into how certain marine bacteria could be used to ease pain and addiction.

Amanda Menendez-Garces is spending the summer as an undergraduate researcher for Kevin Tidgewell, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry in the Mylan School of Pharmacy at Duquesne University. Mr. Tidgewell was among the delegation of Pittsburgh-area business, education and political leaders that traveled in Cuba last November.

“Here, people have more tools for the research. In Cuba, we don’t have the tools all the time. Our machines are broken sometimes or are old,” Ms. Menendez-Garces said recently of her university’s facilities.

Mr. Tidgewell’s team currently is working with samples of a type of bacteria he collected last summer in waters off a marine research station on the Caribbean island of Curacao. Mr. Tidgewell, who has researched cancer drug discovery using this so-called marine cyanobacteria, is now looking for new compounds in the organisms that can treat pain, depression and other brain disorders.

He brought back to Pittsburgh 14 liters of cyanobacteria, preserved in ethanol, in his suitcase and hopes eventually to gather the same type of material from the well-preserved reefs off Cuba’s coast.

To explore that possibility, Mr. Tidgewell met with the dean of the chemistry department at the University of Havana during the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip. Ms. Menendez-Garces, a first-year chemistry student, served as Mr. Tidgewell’s campus guide, and he thought she would make a good addition to his team of student researchers at Duquesne.

“A lot of what she’s doing, a lot of the early parts, are easily transferrable” to her university, even with its limited resources, he said. “Amanda doesn’t have access to some of the equipment, but as the U.S. lowers that blockade and allows trade to happen … she can help run projects there and we can [help with] the samples” she collects in her country. “We’re trying to build relationships.”

A decades-old trade embargo remains in place pending congressional action.

Lisa Valenti, vice president of the Pittsburgh-Matanzas Sister Cities Partnership, which organized the November trip, said the budding connection between the University of Havana and the Tidgewell lab continues a history of academic relations between Pittsburgh and Cuba that preceded President Barack Obama’s effort to normalize relations between the countries.

“The work that Kevin’s doing is providing a very specific piece of a puzzle, but it allows him to work in collaboration [with others], and they can put the puzzle together,” she said. “The November delegation had a lot of outcomes. Everyone that was on the trip has been moving projects forward.”

At Duquesne, Ms. Menendez-Garces is taking extracts of the cyanobacteria from samples collected in the field and separating them into fractions based on their chemical properties. Those are sent off for testing in another lab to determine whether those compounds bind to receptors in the brain, and if so, how tightly. (Medicines bind to receptors, which send messages to the brain.)

Mr. Tidgewell and his collaborators plan to test the compounds for effects in animals.

Outside the lab, Ms. Menendez-Garces said she has enjoyed reuniting with a childhood friend who now attends the University of Pittsburgh.

Molly Born, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 25, 2016

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