Revolutionizing Lung Cancer with a Vaccine Cuba has had for Years

The United States’ 55-year trade embargo with Cuba was the last great bastion of the Cold War. It prevented any exports to Cuba except for food and medical supplies and barred any Cuban products from entering the states. But a recent thawing of relations between the U.S and the island nation is opening up new opportunities for both countries. Last April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo went to Cuba on a trade mission and returned with a signed agreement to bring a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba to the U.S. for clinical trials. This vaccine, known as CimaVax, may not only revolutionize lung cancer treatment but pave the way for treating other cancers as well.

In a country known for its high-quality cigars, lung cancer is major health problem in Cuba and its fourth leading cause of death. But in 2011, after 25 years of development, CimaVax was made available for all Cubans free of charge. Studies show that the treatment stops the growth of lung cancer cells by attacking epidermal growth factor (EDF). This prevents the deadliest type of cancer cells from growing in lung tissues. “Lung cancer cells are addicted to the epidermal growth factor. In other words, they can’t grow unless the growth factor is present,” Dr. Candace Johnson, the CEO and President of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, said to WIVB. “What CimaVax does is it immunizes you against this growth factor. You build up antibodies against it.”

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According to Kelvin Lee, M.D. from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, “Patients getting CimaVax in fact live longer than patients getting standard care.” Published data shows that vaccinated patients have an overall survival of 18.53 months compared to 7.55 months for the unvaccinated patients. Plus, it’s unbelievably affordable to create, with each dose costing the Cuban government about $1 to produce. 5,000 patients have been already been treated with CimaVax worldwide, 1,000 of them living in Cuba. “There are very exciting characteristics of this vaccine,” Lee says. “It works. It prolongs people’s survival. It has almost no toxicity… The really exciting piece of this is… the idea that you might be able to take it to prevent cancer.”

Eager to begin what will be a lengthy process, Roswell Park Cancer Institute hopes to submit an application to the FDA this spring to begin clinical trials. In its initial trial, patients with stage 3 and 4 lung cancer will be administered a shot of CimaVax once a month. After the trial’s initial phase, researchers will begin administering CimaVax to patients with early stage lung cancer. Although initial studies show the vaccine to be effective against lung cancer, researchers are eager to see how CimaVax works against other EGF-associated cancers of the pancreas, breast, neck, and head.

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