Closer American ties with one of the world’s major cigar exporters could actually be good news in the fight against lung cancer. Cuba has developed Cimavax, an effective lung cancer vaccine, and American researchers can now finally get their hands on it, reports Wired.
After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Cuba for a trade mission last month, the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute struck a deal with Havana’s Center of Molecular Immunology to develop a vaccine, allowing clinical trials involving Cimavax to begin in the US, Bloomberg reports.
Cimavax, which stops tumors from growing, was 25 years in the making and has been available for free to Cuban patients since 2011, Wired reports. Each shot costs the government about $1. So how did such a small and poor country create a world-leading therapeutic vaccine? Roswell Park CEO Candace Johnson, who hopes to start clinical trials in the US within a year, tells Wired that the country’s biotech industry has thrived despite—and perhaps even because of—the US embargo.
“They’ve had to do more with less, so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things,” she says. “For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.” Experts say they’re excited not just by the potential of Cimavax, but by other novel Cuban cancer treatments that could now be available to US researchers.
After the 1981 dengue fever outbreak struck nearly 350,000 Cubans, the government established the Biological Front, an effort to focus research efforts by various agencies toward specific goals. Its first major accomplishment was the successful (and unexpected) production of interferon, a protein that plays a role in human immune response. Since then, Cuban immunologists made several other vaccination breakthroughs, including their own vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B, and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants.
A Phase II trial from 2008 showed lung cancer patients who received the vaccine lived an average of four to six months longer than those who didn’t. That prompted Japan and some European countries to initiate Cimavax clinical trials as well.
Even knowing how long the vaccine was in development and after seeing the track record of its results, the FDA will spend months or years on additional clinical trials. When it finally gets put into use, it will certainly cost us much more than a dollar.
It will be interesting to see which big drug company gets their hands on this vaccine, the next big money maker.
Wired goes on to say –
To be fair, Cimavax probably won’t be a game-changing cancer drug in its current form. The vaccine doesn’t attack tumors directly, instead going after a protein that tumors produce which then circulates in the blood. That action spurs a person’s body to release antibodies against a hormone called epidermal growth factor, which typically spurs cell growth but can also, if unchecked, cause cancer. (Although most people normally think of a vaccine as something that prevents a disease, technically a vaccine is a substance that stimulates the immune system in some way.) So the point of Cimavax is to keep lung tumors from growing and metastasizing, turning a late-stage growth into something chronic but manageable.
Epidermal growth factor plays an important role in many other cancers, like prostate, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. “All those things are potential targets for this vaccine,” says Kelvin Lee, an immunologist at the company. Mostly for financial reasons, Cubans didn’t test Cimavax that way at all.
I give them kudos for testing to see if it’s effective on other types of cancer, but there are a number of cancer patients who need it now.