Bisan Lecture Series : How Cuba was able to successfully produce a Covid vaccine!

We are pleased to announce that the third Bisan Lecture webinar will take place on Wednesday, May 11th at 7pm Palestine time (6pm Central European Time, 12 noon US Estern time). We will have the pleasure to welcome Dr. Gertrudis Rojas (Center of Molecular Immunology, Havana, Cuba) who will speak on ” Soberana vaccines against SARS-CoV2: handling antigenic complexity in a versatile biotechnological process“.

You can register for the event on Zoom here.

Dear colleagues,

On 12th April 2022, we held our second session of the Bisan Lecture Series. It was given by Dr. Hohaida Ghanem, director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies “MADAR” and Visiting Professor at Birzeit University. The talk’s title was “Post-justice, exceptionalism, and the normalization of Apartheid”. Dr. Ghanem focused on the importance of the symbolic and ideological facets of the oppression, as those which make the normalization of Apartheid in Palestine possible. She distinguished the conception, according to which Palestine was truly, physically “empty” of Arab inhabitants before the Zionist colonization, from that which has treated Palestine as “politically empty”. The latter approach, according to Ghanem, has tolerated the Palestinian physical presence as long as it was not accorded full-blown humanity, agency and political self-definition. Such an approach has been easier to digest, by the colonialists themselves, as well as by the international community. Hence the Israeli “exceptionalism”. Ghanem offered a fascinating reading of the history of Palestine in the last 100 years according to this interpretation. The talk was followed by a lively discussion, which revolved mainly on linkages between this interpretation and the current political situation in Palestine and Israel. The video recording of the webinar is available here. The lecture notes will be available soon at the same address.

We are pleased to announce that the third Bisan Lecture webinar will take place on Wednesday, May 11th at 7pm Palestine time (6pm Central European Time, 12 noon US Estern time). We will have the pleasure to welcome Dr. Gertrudis Rojas (Center of Molecular Immunology, Havana, Cuba) who will speak on

Title: Soberana vaccines against SARS-CoV2: handling antigenic complexity in a versatile biotechnological process

Abstract: The advent of COVID-19 in Cuba has given rise to an urgent need for effective vaccines in the face of severely limited resources. To meet this challenge, Cuba relies on diversity: multiple production facilities with different platform technologies, multiple vaccine antigen formats, and multiple vaccine candidates.  The Soberana family of vaccines are an important component of this complex landscape whose story  is written at the interface between biology and chemistry. Their specific antigen component is the virus’s receptor-binding domain—its RBD.

The RBD is a promising vaccine antigen because it’s the part of the main viral surface protein that binds specifically to the receptor protein ACE2 on human cells to initiate infection. People vaccinated with the RBD produce antibodies that can prevent infection by blocking the interaction between the virus’s RBD and the ACE2 receptor on cells in vaccinees’ airways, lungs, and other tissues. A specially engineered form of the RBD was prepared by recombinant DNA technology in mammalian cells—living factories that produce the protein in a natural human-like environment. The RBD was then incorporated into vaccine platforms that had already been developed by Cuba’s extensive vaccination programs, creating three vaccine candidates, Soberana-01, Soberana-02, and Soberna-Plus, that are already being tested and deployed.

You can register for the event on Zoom here.

Cuban biochemist Gertrudis Rojas graduated from La Habana University in 1993 and received her Ph.D. in life sciences with an emphasis on cell and molecular biology in 2004. Her research career has been conducted first at the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (1993 to 2007); and then at the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM, 2008 to present), where she now serves as the Head of the Protein Engineering Department.

Although Dr. Rojas’s permanent jobs have all been in Cuba, she’s actively engaged in scientific exchanges with colleagues abroad, with the goal of bringing expertise, knowledge, and technologies to Cuba. She was trained at Maastricht and Nijmegen Universities (The Netherlands); has been a visiting scientist at the Sanger Institute (Cambridge, UK), Toronto University (Canada), Manchester University (UK), and Biotech Pharmaceuticals Ltd (Beijing, China); and has been a part-time post-doctoral fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) and Braunschweig University (Germany). She is currently co-leader of a collaborative project between CIM and Braunschweig University, under the auspices of a long-term AvH cooperative research program. Her involvement in organizing the biannual Immunotherapy meetings in Cuba since 2010 has been another route to establishing a collaborative network between her research group and other labs around the world.

During the last two decades, Dr. Rojas has been Cuba’s leader in the application of phage display technology to obtain and optimize therapeutic proteins. Keeping this powerful technology working in Cuba’s often difficult conditions, and making it available to other Cuban institutions, has been a major achievement. Her own work has focused on the discovery and optimization of antibodies, especially antibodies able to attack cancer cells; as well as on mapping fine details of their interactions with targets. A second focus in the last few years has been cytokine engineering. Cytokines, essential protein messengers that mediate cell-to-cell communication, have thereby been modified to fine-tune their interactions with receptors and biological functions, and to improve their manufacturability and stability.

With the advent of COVID-19, research in Dr. Rojas’s lab, as in many other labs around the country, was redirected to help fight the virus. They produced multiple COVID-related molecules through high‑throughput protein production at laboratory scale, and supplied them to many Cuban institutions for research and analysis. They have also established a cell line that produces the SARS CoV-2 receptor binding domain (RBD) in two different forms for incorporation into Cuba’s Soberana series of vaccines. That cell line is now cultured at industrial scale, producing both forms of RBD in sufficient quantities to vaccinate most of the Cuba’s pediatric population, along with healthy and convalescent adults.

Teaching is an essential part of Dr. Rojas’s work, both as lecturer in post-graduate courses and as supervisor of under-graduate and graduate students from La Habana University and other Institutes.

Among Dr. Rojas’s honors are six Annual Scientific Research Prizes from the Cuban Academy of Sciences; the order Carlos J. Finlay of the Presidency of Cuba for outstanding contributions to scientific development; and the medal of the World Intellectual Property Organization awarded to the inventors of one of Cuba’s anti-COVID-19 vaccines.

This lecture is sponsored by the Bisan Center for Research and Development, Scientists for Palestine and the Center for Palestinian Studies of Columbia University

Hoping to see many of you at this webinar, we send you our best regards.

The Bisan Lecture Series Steering Committee


Next BLS webinar

Wednesday September 14, 2022, 7 pm Palestine time

Prof. Salim Tamari (Birzeit University and Institute for Palestine Studies)

Title: Autobiographic Narratives of the Great War and the Creation of the New Middle East

Wednesday October 12, 2022, 7 pm Palestine time

Prof.Nancy Kanwisher (MIT)

Title: Functional Imaging of the Human Brain: A Window into the Architecture of the Mind

To receive BLS announcements, you can subscribe to the mailing list here.

BLS Statement of purpose

In concert with Scientists for Palestine and the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and in keeping with their joint commitment to full integration of Palestine in the global community of learning, the Bisan Lecture Series sponsors discourses on subjects of cultural, scientific, and societal importance by leading research experts and public intellectuals of varied heritage and viewpoint. The interactive webinars are free and open to the public, and recordings of each will be posted soon afterward.