Cuba Has a Lung Cancer Treatment, and Now So Will the U.S.

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By renewing relations with Cuba, America stands to gain more than just a political or economic ally. Our approach to cancer treatment could benefit, too.

In Cuba, a country known for its cigars, lung cancer has been the fourth-leading cause of death. And despite stunted progress in other sectors, Cuba's government has long prioritized biotechnology and medical research, particularly preventative medicine.

“They’ve had to do more with less,” said Candace Johnson, CEO of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “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.”

Johnson is about to find out first hand just how successful Cuba's scientists have been. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo returned from Havana last month with a promise to bring a Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine stateside.

After rigorous testing for 25 years, in 2011 the vaccine CimaVax became available for free to the Cuban public. Now, Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology is working with Roswell Park to transfer information about how it’s produced, its toxicity data, and results from past trials to get the treatment on track for approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

"We’re still at the very early stages of assessing the promise of this vaccine, but the evidence so far from clinical trials in Cuba and Europe has been striking," Dr. Kelvin Lee, Jacobs Family Chair in Immunology and co-leader of the Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Program at Roswell Park, told The Huffington Post.

It's important to note that CimaVax doesn't cure cancer—in its current state it doesn’t attack tumors directly, but rather prevents them from growing—but it prolongs and improves the lives of those who have it. Since its introduction, about 5000 patients have received the vaccine worldwide, including 1000 in Cuba. On average, patients who received CimaVax lived 4-6 months longer. It's a good start, and American scientists are looking forward to seeing where their research can take the vaccine.

"We think it may be an effective way to prevent cancer from developing or recurring, so that’s where a lot of our team’s excitement comes in," Lee said. "There’s good reason to believe that this vaccine may be effective in both treating and preventing several types of cancer, including not only lung but breast, colorectal, head-and-neck, prostate and ovarian cancers, so the potential positive impact of this approach could be enormous."