American researchers are about to be given access for the first time to a breakthrough lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba, in what could be one of the most significant benefits to the US of improving relations with the Communist state.
The closed-off Caribbean nation is emerging from a 55-year rift with the US, and the historic shift in diplomatic standing is set to give American scientists their first glimpse at the medical breakthroughs developed in Cuba during that time.
One of the most prominent is a drug which suppresses the growth of tumours in the lungs. Cimavax has been available for free to all Cuban citizens since 2011, is believed to have minimal side effects and can prolong the life of a patient in the late stages of the disease by as much as six months.
How has Cuba had such success?
The ground-breaking US study of Cimavax will take place at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and the centre’s CEO Candace Johnson told Wired “the chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect”.
During the economic blockade by the US and after a string of serious disease outbreaks, Cuban leader Fidel Castro made biotechnology and medical research a key priority for the allocation of limited government funds.
Johnson said: “They’ve had to do more with less, so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”
Why is this only happening now?
The opening up of Cuba’s medical breakthroughs comes as part of a wider improvement in relations with the US – a charter flight service from New York to Cuba has already been announced, and licences for six direct ferry services with Florida have been approved.
But the specific decision to allow Cimavax to be studied in the US comes after a trade mission to Cuba led by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
He said: “There’s no doubt that developing these mutual business relationships, which assist Cuba and also work for the companies, is a big part of moving forward.”
So what does Cuba get in return?
As part of the deal, Manhattan-based company Infor will provide healthcare software to a Cuban university.
Infor CEO Charles Phillips said he was “surprised and impressed in the level of expertise they have in healthcare technology” during the trade mission, when a deal was agreed over a dinner of rice and beans.
But if the thawing of relations continues, the boost to the Cuban economy and potential for US investment could be coupled with the state’s immunology expertise to produce yet more breakthroughs.
What will the US do with the drug?
Cimavax is reported to help lung cancer patients by encouraging the body’s immune system to attack a hormone known to encourage growth in tumours.
It is not a miracle cure, but it is cheap, very easy to administer and a small study suggested it could significantly prolong the life of patients.
“The idea is that the Cimavax vaccine induces a immune response [to stop production of the hormone],” Roswell Park’s Dr Kelvin Lee told ABC News. “The tumour is being starved.”
Dr Lee said the first step will be to win the approval of the US FDA for a phase 1 study covering the next six to eight months and involving a small number of patients.
But if that is successful, Dr Lee said, there was potential for the technology to work with other diseases that involve the same hormone – including breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.
Dr Elizabeth Mittendorf, an immunotherapy expery at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas, hailed the potential for progress with Cuban advances. She said: “Politics certainly should not prohibit good science from being further evaluated.”