An agreement between the Cuban Immunology Center and a New York cancer institute was recently finalized, bringing a new lung cancer vaccine to American patients. The vaccine, Cimavax, is expected to gain approval in six to eight months, with clinical trials set to begin in 2016.
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The agreement was signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during his visit to Cuba in April 2015. The partnership between the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Center for Molecular Immunology in Cuba will bring the vaccine to the U.S. for the first time.
Cuba conducts some of the best and most innovative medical research in the world, particularly for vaccines and immunology. Cimavax was developed over a 25-year-period, and was made available to the Cuban public for free in 2011. One clinical trial conducted in 2008 showed that Cuban lung cancer patients who received the vaccine lived an average of 5 months longer than patients who did not receive the vaccine.
As relations between the U.S. and Cuba begin to normalize, potentially putting an end to a 55-year trade embargo, President Obama has used executive power to lift restrictions on medical and research equipment. The embargo still stands, however, and Congress will have to lift the embargo if collaborative research between the two countries can grow and evolve.
As a result of decades of diplomatic and economic sanctions, Cuba has been forced to be more innovative and creative than countries with more resources. Cuba spends a fraction of the money Americans do on healthcare, yet the average life expectancy is equal among the two nations.
Fidel and Raul Castro went to great lengths to strengthen the country's medical research and biotechnology sectors, placing much emphasis on preventative medicine. Cuba now has one of the best immunology programs in the world, making numerous vaccination breakthroughs for meningitis, hepatitis, and now, lung cancer.
The Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology is expected to give the Roswell Park Cancer Institute all relevant data - including how it's produced and past trial results - to submit to the FDA for approval. Fortunately, Cimavax seems to have very low toxicity and will be relatively inexpensive to produce and store.
Cimavax works by attacking a certain protein tumors produce into the bloodstream. When those proteins are attacked, the body naturally releases antibodies against a hormone called epidermal growth factor. This hormone typically incites cell growth, including the growth and spread of cancer cells. Therefore, Cimavax is a therapeutic vaccine, intended not to prevent cancer from occurring, but to target certain antibodies to keep tumors from growing. This can potentially keep even late-stage cancer in check, so the condition is chronic but manageable.
Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute are hoping to expand the use of Cimavax beyond this purpose, as drugs to keep cancer "chronic but manageable" already exist in the U.S. Roswell is planning to explore Cimavax's potential to actually prevent cancer from occurring. Cuba has been unable to explore the vaccine's preventative potential due to financial limits.