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The complete history of how Cuba stumbled upon its curative arachnid might never be known. There's no written account, and the man who discovered the blue scorpion's powers, a biologist named Misael Bordier Chivas, died of a heart attack seven years ago. But the story goes something like this: While testing several snake, spider, and scorpion venoms for a variety of ailments during the 1980s for the University of Guantánamo, Professor Bordier noticed improvement in rats and dogs taking R. junceus venom. He expanded his experiments and soon saw tumors decrease in size.
In 1993, word of his research reached a hotel manager named José Felipe Monzón living on the other side of the country in a town called Jagüey Grande. Monzón's 15-year-old daughter, Niurys, had all but lost a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver and intestines. Unwilling to give up, Monzón traveled to Guantánamo and begged Bordier for some venom. The professor mixed the first human formula for the girl, who appears to be in good health today. (She declined a request for an interview.)
Labiofam approached Bordier several years later. The state firm began tests that confirmed the treatment's safety. Given the promising results, the company decided to make it available immediately. Because government health authorities couldn't approve the medicine for sale so quickly, the company found a loophole: It started distributing it free to anyone who gave informed consent in 2003.
That practice meant a large amount of venom was needed. To get it, Labiofam created a scorpionario in the city of Santa Clara, where today more than 7,000 of the creatures wriggle in individual plastic containers on metal shelves.
"This is where the milking happens," says Manuel Valdés, a veterinarian clad in medical scrubs, latex gloves, and a surgical cap and mask. He's standing inside a small bare room in the Labiofam outpost. In the adjoining acclimatized rooms (71.6 degrees Fahrenheit), every scorpion has an ID number, coded for its region of capture and date of entry. The animals spend 40 days in quarantine — long enough for any pregnant scorpions to give birth and for any potential illness to be detected. Then they enter the venom rotation.
The scorpion twists itself backward as one of Valdés' colleagues uses two long metal tongs to try to steady the five-inch arachnid. "It takes a certain technique," Valdés says. The man aims the tail over a small glass jar sitting in a bucket of ice, and the scientist steps on a pedal attached to an electro-stimulus machine. As a jolt transmitted through the tongs reaches the scorpion, it releases six to 12 "micro-drops" of milky-white venom. "Each scorpion is milked once a month for two years," explains Valdés, who says the average lifespan of R. junceus is ten years. "Then it's released back into the wild to repopulate the species." The venom moves on to Havana, where for years it has been diluted with distilled water depending upon a patient's condition.
As soon as Labiofam began production, news of the free treatment traveled quickly. "I'd arrive at the office at 6 a.m. and there would already be lines of people around the block," Dr. Fraga recalls. Charter flights full of cancer patients started arriving from Europe. Weeks after an Italian journalist aired a video segment about the venom, hundreds of Italians showed up each day. "We never turned anyone away," Fraga says.
By 2010, the situation had become untenable. First, the government was anxious. In 2004, 2006, and 2009, Cuba's State Control Center for Medicine, Equipment, and Medicinal Products (CECEMD) — the country's equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration — was compelled to issue warnings regarding scorpion treatment. "Cuba does not yet have any pharmaceutical product based on the venom of the blue scorpion," Dr. Rafael Pérez Cristiá, director of Cuba's Regulatory Bureau for the Health Protection and Center for Quality Control, said in 2009. "At this moment, we do not have the documented evidence of the therapeutic action... that would justify its safe and efficient usage."
And supplies were running short. "They would need more than the entire scorpion population in Cuba to keep up production," says a former Labiofam employee who asked that his name not be used.
So Labiofam opted for homeopathy. This approach quickly gained approval, and Vidatox was born. The extremely diluted solution made it more viable to mass-produce. The 30-milliliter bottle is now available at Cuban pharmacies at a cost of $220 for foreigners and 4 cents for Cubans. Labiofam still makes the original, drinkable formula but has stopped its all-access distribution program.
Another formula is in the works. Diaz's team has identified five proteins in the venom that have anti-tumor capacities and will use these as the basis for a recombinant or synthetic version. One of the proteins being researched is likely a peptide known as chlorotoxin (CTX), which can be derived from many scorpion species. It has been researched in relation to cancer for 20 years with limited results. Diaz says if these elements can be genetically cloned, the blue scorpions of the future will live in peace.