Research cooperation between two countries that don’t communicate politically – the United States (US) and Cuba – allows a strange relationship to make strides against cancer. Now a Cuban lung cancer vaccine is in US clinical trials.
How did this strange relationship begin?
After Fidel Castro took over as president of Cuba, causing great harm to most of the middle class, over half the doctors fled the island. There is no doubt that his authoritarian, sometimes ruthless, leadership had unimaginable downsides, but there is a side that cannot be ignored. He was determined to bring Cuba to the forefront in science and medicine.
He sent thousands of people to other countries to study at top medical universities. Because Cuba was so isolated due to the American embargo and its geography, they lacked not only doctors, but medicines, as well as hospital and medical equipment and supplies. To service the medical needs of the population and reach the global standing Castro demanded, Cuba was forced to conduct research and create medicines within the country on their own – and it paid off.
Making strides against cancer
A famous American oncology doctor, Randolph Lee Clark, visited Cuba and Castro in 1980 with information about interferon, a promising drug for treating cancer. It intrigued Castro enough that he sent doctors to visit Clark and also to Finland to study their methods of purifying interferon from white blood cells. By the time the doctors returned to Cuba, a new laboratory awaited them along with an instruction from Castro, “Make interferon for Cuba.” These doctors worked tirelessly to reproduce the method for purification seen in other countries. In 42 days, they were ready with the process.
Meanwhile Castro sent Luis Herrera to Europe to learn information about genetic engineering, a science that was changing science throughout the world. Herrera brought this knowledge back to Cuba. These two new scientific breakthroughs were the start of Cuba’s biotechnology development and recognition as a medical power.
Cuban lung cancer vaccine trials in US begin in earnest
For years, US citizens suffering from Stage 4 cancers, traveled illegally to Cuba for cancer treatments unavailable in the US. For many, what had been a death sentence, now became a chronic illness but one that could extend lives for possibly years. The CIMAvax vaccine from Cuban researchers, which was based on interferon and genetic engineering, extended lives.
This caught the attention of scientists at Roswell Park in the US. When President Obama opened the doors to a new relationship with Cuba, two Roswell researchers traveled to Cuba and met with scientists there. Roswell scientists wanted to learn more about CIMAvax and the Cuban scientists wanted to learn more about the world-class immunology treatments developed by Americans. They also wanted access to America’s advanced research equipment that could speed and enhance their work.
The relationship began in earnest after hearing a presentation made by Cuban doctors at Roswell Park in 2011. A 2015 trade mission led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended with an agreement between Roswell Park and Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (C.I.M.). This was an agreement to initiate a clinical trial for CIMAvax targeting lung cancer – a trial approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be held in the US and a first for a Cuban drug. This may be a boon to those with lung cancer brought on by asbestos exposure. In the Roswell trials CIMAvax is joined by a checkpoint inhibitor, nivolumab possibly making the vaccine even more successful.
Today, the clinical trial is still gathering information, but once it passes, it is expected to be cleared for used by patients in the US by the FDA. With travel – once again illegal – unnecessary for patients, it would be available to many more patients who have little hope at this time.
What about the future?
There is already an agreement for a biotech joint venture between the US and Cuba – a first. They also agreed to build a new biotech facility in Cuba for more research on cancer drugs. The facility will be jointly owned by Roswell Park and C.I.M. They visualize factories manufacturing new medicines for people around the globe.
Candace Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, said, “I know everything that we do with Cuba can be a challenge because of the relationship between our two countries,” Johnson said. “We’re very hopeful. It seems to me it would be very difficult … from the FDA’s perspective, if this drug has a role, that it wouldn’t be available in this country.”