For the past 55 years, a US-led trade embargo on Cuba has ensured that technological advances made by the country stayed in Cuba – but now, with the Obama administration looking to normalize trade between the two nations, a Cuban lung cancer vaccine is set to be evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The vaccine, known as CimaVax-EGF, is the first therapeutic cancer vaccine developed to target one of the most common forms of lung cancer, non-small-cell lung carcinoma(1).
Developed at the Center of Molecular Technology in Cuba, the vaccine is still in trial phases, but bringing it to the United States could be a major step forward in making it accessible globally.
Early Trials Are Promising
Early trials of the vaccine showed improved survival rates among vaccinated test subjects, although the success of the vaccine does seem to be limited by age – only subjects under the age of 60 seemed to benefit from the vaccine in terms of survival(2).
The vaccine works by immunizing patients with epidermal growth factor, or EGF, raising antibodies to target the EGF itself in the body. The EGF receptors are then “hijacked” by the lung cancer, and as the EGF concentrations in the blood are reduced, the cancer cells are denied the growth stimulus they require to thrive(3).
The Roswell Park Group in the United States believes that the vaccine may prove most useful as preventative, rather than therapeutic, medicine for this reason(4).
Cuba’s Response To A Unique Problem
While Cuba is a relatively impoverished nation (the average worker there earns just 20 dollars per month) it has also been on the cutting edge of biotech and medical research.
Currently, lung cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death in Cuba(5), a fact which has spurred the development of the CimaVax-EGF vaccine.
The vaccine is relatively cheap to produce, and stores easily – each shot costs the government of Cuba only 1 dollar(6).
Also notable is the fact the vaccine seems to have few serious side effects(7), making it one of the safest cancer treatments on the market today.
Future Cancer Vaccine Development
Clinical trials of the vaccine so far have been relatively small, and there is some concern that the patients included in these trials may not represent most of the patients who could benefit from the vaccine. With this is mind, many researchers are urging that CimaVax-EGF be tested in patients with early-stage lung cancer, as well as in patients who may not be good candidates for chemotherapy.
Many researchers believe that studying the CimaVax-EGF vaccine may be able to help them develop similar therapies for other forms of cancer as well.
Working Around Trade Embargoes
It’s only recently that collaborative research between Cuba and the US has been possible – President Obama has used some of his authority to lift a few of the restrictions against medical and research equipment, but there is still a ways to go before this collaboration can really take off.
Still, many hope that a scientific partnership between the US and Cuba will be good for both countries.
The hope is that Cuban researchers will be able to begin to share the techniques and approaches they developed while in relative isolation with the rest of the world, leading to more innovation in science and medicine worldwide.