By CHRISTINE ARMARIO, Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Miami Congressman Joe García is supporting the efforts of a Cuban research institute that wants to test and market a diabetes treatment in the U.S.
The drug is intended to help people who suffer from diabetic foot ulcers, and, if successful, could help the estimated 70,000 Americans who undergo an amputation due to diabetes complications each year, García said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.
But because of U.S.-Cuba trade restrictions, the Office of Foreign Assets Control would first need to approve whether to grant a license for the drug to be put to clinical trials in the United States.
The drug was developed by Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and the 51-year-old embargo prohibits nearly all trade until there are democratic changes on the island, though a clause allows for the sale of food products and some pharmaceuticals.
García's support for the drug, called Heberprot-P, is one of the first times that a Cuban-American representative in Congress has publically supported a measure critics would say undermine the embargo. García, a Democrat, has largely stayed away from discussing Cuba issues, both during his campaign and in office, though he has stated his support for humanitarian travel and the "people-to-people" exchanges re-established under the Obama administration.
García said Tuesday he remains in favor of the embargo, and that the drug's entrance into the U.S. market isn't about politics but potentially saving lives.
"I'm all for the embargo," he said. "I'm all for being against the Cuban regime. But what I'm not for is people suffering if they don't need to. Certainly not Americans."
The Miami Herald first reported García's stance on the diabetes treatment.
Garcia said chronic diabetes runs throughout his family, and recalled how his grandfather, a gardener who suffered from the disease, constantly worried about getting cuts on his hands and feet. According to the National Institutes of Health, diabetics are at an increased risk of developing foot sores that can take months to heal and often result in hospital stays.
According to the Cuban institute that developed the drug, Heberprot-P has been registered in 15 other countries, treating more than 100,000 patients. The medication contains recombinant human epidermal growth factor to accelerate the healing of deep and complex ulcers.
An article published in the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde earlier this year stated that nations including Russia, Brazil, and China were in the process of applying to use Heberprot-P in their hospitals. The story quoted a lawyer affiliated with the research center stating the drug had helped more than 200,000 people in Cuba.
Recently, former Republican New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, and former Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat who now lobbies for Healiance Pharmaceutical, spoke with García about drug trials for the Cuban medication in the U.S.
After their meetings, García joined other representatives in supporting a draft letter circulating in Congress requesting the U.S. Treasury Department grant authorization if a U.S. company seeks a license to conduct clinical trials of the drug.
"The lack of access to an effective treatment for this life threatening condition, which afflicts millions of Americans and results in billions of dollars in direct medical costs, is a serious unmet medical need for the American people that should be viewed as a human issue and not as part of a Cold War era political one," the letter states.
Polling of the Cuban-American community has shown support for the embargo against Cuba has waned, especially as Miami becomes increasingly populated with Cubans who grew up on the island after the revolution and travel back to visit relatives.
García said he didn't have the changing face of the Cuban-American electorate in mind when he decided to support the drug's entrance into U.S. markets.
"This is something that's right," he said. "This is something that could benefit up to 70,000 Americans. I'm a member of the United States Congress and my job is to represent those folks."
Jorge Duany, director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, said he believed there would likely be some support in the Cuban-American community for treating issues like medications as a special issue with humanitarian implications, rather than in the context of the continuing political conflict between Cuba and the United States.
"I think he's gambling that, in fact, it's not going to cost him any significant number of votes," Duany said in an interview on Tuesday.
At least two other members of the Cuban-American congressional delegation have voiced their opposition to allowing the drug entrance into the U.S. market.
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., said it shouldn't be permitted because Cuba remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and because he said the drug has not been commercialized in any developed nation.
"This is the (latest) shiny object the regime is trying to use to weaken sanctions," Díaz-Balart said.