Cuba’s lung cancer vaccine could be lifesaver

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday:

Here’s the thing about cigars: They cause lung cancer.

Cuba has a lot of cigars – and a lot of cancer. But the country famous for its Cohibas also has some promising anti-cancer drugs, and the United States has its eye on them.

Lung cancer kills more people in the U.S. than prostate, breast and colorectal cancer combined, according to the American Lung Association. Survival rates are dismal. Lung cancers are hard to catch early, and more than half of patients die within a year of being diagnosed.

Last month, Buffalo, N.Y.-based research group Roswell Park Cancer Institute struck a deal with a Cuban biotechnology institute to import and conduct clinical trials on a vaccine for lung cancer.

The vaccine, Cimavax, isn’t a cure. It helps the immune system create antibodies against a protein that causes cancerous cells to grow. It essentially slows a tumor’s progress. The vaccine is cheap to make and far less toxic than chemotherapy.

Cuban trials have shown that Cimavax can extend cancer patients’ lives by four to six months.

Scientists at Roswell think it could help prevent lung cancer in the future. Roswell CEO Candace Johnson told Wired she hopes to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to begin clinical trials within a year.

Several European countries and Japan have already started Cimavax trials.

Until recently, though, U.S. researchers – and their Cuban counterparts – couldn’t collaborate.

For more than 50 years, the U.S. trade embargo has denied Cuba access to most U.S. medicines and supplies. That didn’t stop Cuba from building a model public health system. The impoverished island nation has more than twice as many doctors per capita as the U.S., and the average life expectancy is the same.

Biotech research and medical innovation have long been priorities for the Cuban government. But American researchers supported by federal grants couldn’t work with scientists in Cuba. Research projects funded by only private money or foundations could squeeze past the oppressive embargo, but those projects are rare.

Since December, though, it’s a different landscape. Using his executive powers, President Barack Obama loosened many restrictions on trade and travel between the two countries, including allowing for joint research projects such as the Cimavax deal.

And trust us – we want more projects like this.

There is a lot we can learn from researchers in Cuba. The country’s biotech industry holds about 1,200 international patents and sells medicine and equipment to more than 50 countries, according to the World Health Organization. It created its own vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B and has promising drugs to help treat tumors in the head, neck and brain.

Pair the money and muscle behind the U.S.’ medical research sector with Cuba’s inventive one, and all sorts of advances could be within reach. See what we’ve been missing? Half a century of trying to isolate Cuba has been bad for us, too.

In summary

Loosening restrictions on Cuba could open door to joint research on Cuban lung cancer vaccine