Friday, October 17, 2014

Turning a Trip to Cuba into a Novel


I visited Cuba in 2013. My tour guide was determined for our group to see Cuba as more than a former haunt of mobsters from the U.S. and a place to see vintage U.S. cars. She bragged about how Cuba was modernizing its economy. I figured many of her comments were carefully rehearsed propaganda.

However, one of her claims caught my attention. She said Cuban researchers had patented a drug for cancer. When I got home, I checked. Researchers at the Center of Molecular Immunology in Havana and scientists in Argentina had developed a therapeutic cancer vaccine, called Racotumomab, to treat one type of lung cancer (non-small cell lung cancer). A multicenter clinical trail is now evaluating the drug’s effectiveness.

This drug is an example of a hot area of research – the development of cancer immunotherapy drugs, sometimes called cancer vaccines. These drugs rev up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.

Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. Do these drugs work? The editors of Science named cancer immunotherapy the “scientific breakthrough of the year” in 2013. Hundred of labs worldwide are developing and patenting potential drugs of this sort. So far, none, including the Cuban one, have been a huge success. Several have helped patients to survive longer in clinical trials.

Why the fuss about this one Cuban patent? This patent demonstrates Cuban scientists are doing competitive science and understand the importance of commercialization of their research. I also discovered Cuban were already visiting American universities, and a number of U.S. scientists were trying to augment these scientific exchanges despite the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

I thought this could be the basis of a novel. Realistically the State Department might send (in the near future) scientists to Cuba to explore the possibility of creating government-sponsored exchanges between the two countries. Certainly scientific exchanges between the US and China were early steps in the normalization of our relationship with China during the Nixon administration.

The birth of MALIGNANCY: A Novel. I thought Sara Almquist, the epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu and Ignore the Pain would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba. Besides, I could throw in a little intrigue about drugs slipping from Bolivia through Cuba and into the U.S.

Here’s a blurb on MALIGNANCY. Men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. The real police suspect Jim Mazzone, a drug czar who Sara has tangled with several times, will order more hits on Sara. Thus when colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town. Maybe, she should question their motives.

I think you’ll find this novel has plenty of action and deserves thriller status. And it has something no other thriller has – a middle-aged woman heroine.