A lung cancer vaccine has been available in Cuba for years

Mar 23, 2016 at 12:45 p.m. ET
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Yes, you read that headline right. Not only does Cuba have a lung cancer vaccine, but they've had one that's been widely available in their country since 2011. If you just went, "What? Why in the world is it not in the United States yet?" let me explain.

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First of all, as you probably know, there has been a trade embargo between Cuba and the United States for the past 55 years. That makes most collaborations with them particularly difficult to negotiate. However, thanks to the ever awesome President Obama, there have been significant efforts made over the last few years to lift aspects of that embargo, which will give us access to this vaccine. In fact, almost a year ago, an agreement was struck between Cuba's Immunology Center and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, allowing clinical trials with the vaccine to begin there. That's a pretty monumental step forward, especially considering the vaccine had been in existence for four years prior to that.

Needless to say, researchers are excited to get what's being called the Cimavax vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration so it can be administrated to late-stage cancer patients. Now how would a vaccine be effective on someone who already has cancer, you ask? Simple — vaccines trigger immune response, and Cimavax, in its current form, is designed to help the body release antibodies that fight the epidermal growth factor — a known cancer-causing hormone. Essentially the vaccine will help keep progressive cancer from metastasizing, which, in the long run, could turn end-stage lung cancer into something more manageable. American scientists hope to one day make Cimavax a truly preventative vaccine, but for now, this is its best function.

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So far Cimavax has been administered to over 5,000 patients (1,000 of which reside in Cuba). It was made available to the public in Cuba for free back in 2011 because lung cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death there. Previous trials show that the vaccine has few side effects but has the potential to lengthen a stage 3 lung cancer patient's life by an average of 11 months. It's also pretty inexpensive — it costs the Cuban government just $1 to manufacture one vaccine dose. As such, the United States isn't the only country eager to test it — Japan and several European countries have also started trials.

It's pretty amazing that a country like Cuba, which has undergone devastating economic hardships, has been able to develop such a revolutionary vaccine. The simple explanation for their immunological success is that they have researchers who aren't afraid to think outside the box and make do with the limited budget available to them. They should really offer American hospitals a class in health care economics.

Roswell plans to submit its application to the FDA for clinical trials on patients with stage 3 and 4 lung cancer this spring (so, any day). Dr. Candace Johnson, the CEO and president of Roswell, said they plan to administer the vaccine to patients once a month until the tumors start growing again. If phase 1 of the clinical trials is successful, they plan to move on to phase 2, which will involve administering the vaccine to early-stage lung cancer patients.

While it is a bit too early to sign up for either of these trials, if you or someone you know is living with lung cancer, Roswell has a number of other promising clinical studies you can check out on its site.

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