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The thawing of the 50-year chill in Cuba-U.S. relations may already be bearing fruit.
Plans are in motion to import a Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine for American clinical trials. Though the small Caribbean country has struggled economically since the U.S. embargo began in the 1960s, Cuba has managed to maintain a high life expectancy and low infant mortality rates (better than the U.S., according to the stats).
The country has devoted resources and homegrown talent to medical research, investing more than US$1 billion in biotech over the past 20 years, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report. This research produced CimaVax EGF, a first-of-its-kind vaccine to help fight lung cancer, the fourth-leading cause of death in the cigar-loving nation. There were even clinical trials held in London, Ont. back in 2000.
It's considered a vaccine even though it doesn't prevent cancer because the drug makes the body produce tumour-reducing antibodies. Though the drug doesn't cure cancer, it can extend the life of people with advanced lung cancer, without the side-effects of chemotherapy.
It was approved in Cuba in 2011 and has been free for Cubans ever since, though many foreign patients also fly in for treatment. Wired reports that "each shot costs the government about $1. A Phase II trial from 2008 showed lung cancer patients who received the vaccine lived an average of four to six months longer than those who didn’t."
But the vaccine may soon be able to treat American patients as well after President Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban medical and research equipment. HuffPost Canada has asked the Canadian Cancer Society the status of CimaVax in Canada and will update the story when we have a response.
During a trade mission to Cuba last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo helped push through an agreement between the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Cuba's Center for Molecular Immunology to begin CimaVax trials within a year, which could lead to FDA approval.
Roswell Park researcher Dr. Kelvin Lee told The Huffington Post that his team is excited about the drug's potential to also act like a traditional vaccine and prevent cancer from developing or recurring.
"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," Lee said.
Cuba has developed more anti-cancer drugs, too. Nimotuzumab, intended to treat advanced tumours in the head, neck and brain, is currently undergoing clinical trials in Japan and Europe.
"Investigators from around the world are trying to crack the nut of cancer," Feinstein Institute for Medical Research biologist Thomas Rothstein told Wired. "The Cubans are thinking in ways that are novel and clever."
And it's not just cancer. According to the WHO, Cuba's biotech industry has 1,200 international patents and its exports are soaring, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.
Not surprisingly, given the country's socialist political system, Cuba's WHO rep says their focus has been on "producing more affordable drugs to tackle diseases that run rampant in low- and middle-income countries."
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