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Cuba has been isolated from the United States for the better half of a century. But improving relations between the two countries could see a lung cancer vaccine being exchanged for the benefit of Americans. The vaccine is reaching American shores for the first time, and American researchers are eager to make it accessible. Even though the transfer is still in its early stages, the future looks promising.

American Trials

Available to the public in Cuba since 2011, CimaVax is both a treatment and a vaccine for lung cancer and has been researched in Cuba for the last twenty-five years. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s trade mission to Cuba in 2015 precipitated the beginning of this exchange, but with all international drugs and treatments, U.S. researchers need to conduct clinical trials and replicate results before it becomes available to the American public. The trials will be done at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and will evaluate CimaVax for American use. Even though everything is still in its early stages, the clinical trials that have taken place in Cuba and Europe have demonstrated very promising results. 

A Time-Consuming Process

With an easing of tensions between the two countries, the door is open for a better trade relationship. But Candace Johnson, CEO of Roswell Park says “you never know how long these things would take, we would have loved to have had this already started because we’ve been working on this for quite a while, but we’re persistent, and we’ll get it done.” 

With a reputation for high-quality cigars, it’s no wonder that the fourth leading cause of death in the country happens to be lung cancer. But a study in 2007, of patients with stages IIIB and IV lung cancer, published in the journal of clinical oncology confirmed the safety of the CimaVax and showed an increase in tumor-reducing antibody production in more than half of cases.

It should be noted that it was particularly effective when treating patients that were younger than sixty. So far only five-thousand patients worldwide have been treated with CimaVax, including one-thousand Cubans. An added bonus of the vaccine is that it is cheap, costing only one dollar each for the Cuban government to make.

How it works

Boasting no side effects, this vaccine induces people to build antibodies against a certain growth factor that cancer cells make. For people with cancer, this response results in the body actually getting rid of the cancer cells. And for people who are currently healthy but at a high risk for lung cancer, for example, somebody in remission, the vaccine acts as a preventative measure to prevent relapse.

Proponents of the vaccine envision that one day it could be used as a standard preventative vaccine that a person gets in childhood. It should be noted that however amazing CimaVax may be it is not a cure for cancer. It’s a therapeutic vaccine that works by targeting the tumor itself, specifically attacking the proteins that allow a tumor to keep growing (1).

The future looks promising

But there remains a lot to be done before the vaccine can reach American consumers. For instance, since there’s still a trade embargo between Cuba and the U.S. Roswell Park had to apply for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department to bring CimaVax into the U.S. Currently, they are allowed to use it for lab research but not to give it out to patients. Roswell Park has to get approval for a trial from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before testing it on Americans; then their own Institutional Review Board must evaluate its scientific merit. The whole process will potentially take years to finish.

It will take some time before Americans get a hold of this vaccine but the future looks promising as all the institutions involved are doing whatever they can to expedite the process and make CimaVax available to the public.