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Why Normalizing Relations with Cuba Could Help Cancer Patients in the U.S.

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

Wired reported Monday that normalizing relations with Cuba after 55 years could be good news for cancer patients in the United States. According to the report, the island has a "promising therapeutic vaccine against lung cancer," and has had it for several years.

"The Obama administration has, of course, been trying to normalize relations with the island nation. And last month, during New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s visit to Havana, Roswell Park Cancer Institute finalized an agreement with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology to develop a lung cancer vaccine and begin clinical trials in the US. Essentially, US researchers will bring the Cimavax vaccine stateside and get on track for approval by the Food and Drug Administration." - Wired, May 11, 2015

“The chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect,” says Candace Johnson, CEO of Roswell Park.



For some, it may be hard to believe that a country as poor as Cuba could be more advanced than the United States in treating often fatal conditions like lung cancer, but there may be an explanation for this:

"Though the country is justly famous for cigars, rum, and baseball, it also has some of the best and most inventive biotech and medical research in the world. That’s especially notable for a country where the average worker earns $20 a month. Cuba spends a fraction of the money the US does on healthcare per individual; yet the average Cuban has a life expectancy on par with the average American. “They’ve had to do more with less,” says Johnson, “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.”   Despite decades of economic sanctions, Fidel and Raul Castro made biotechnology and medical research, particularly preventative medicine, a priority. 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." - Wired, May 11, 2015

Lung cancer, according to the article, is the fourth leading cause of death in Cuba. So, it makes sense that Cuba's Center for Molecular Immunology has spent decades working on a vaccination for it. While Cimavax is by no means a cure, Phase II clinical trials from 2008 show that patients who took the vaccine lived up to six months longer than patients who didn't. As a result, other countries around the world initiated clinical trials for Cimavax as well.

Read the full Wired article here.

Photo Credit: Emin Kuliyev /

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