Tourism isn't the only industry eager to benefit from the relaxing of the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba. Medical researchers on both of sides of the Straits of Florida now have the chance to collaborate with previously off-limits colleagues. Of particular interest to the US is a Cuban lung cancer drug that took 25 years to develop.
The US-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology just signed an agreement for work on the cancer drug called Cimavax, Wired reports. The so-called lung cancer vaccine reportedly costs the Cuban Ministry of Health about $US1 per shot to produce and is now offered free to the public. Under the agreement, the Center for Molecular Immunology will share research documentation with Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Roswell Park will use that documentation to apply for permission from the FDA to launch a clinical trial in the US.
Despite the name, it's really more of a treatment than a vaccine. Cimavax targets a protein produced by tumour cells. In response, the patient's body produces antibodies against the hormone responsible for the out-of-control cell growth in cancer (the hormone, epidermal growth factor, is also responsible for normal cell growth). This prevents tumours from growing or spreading to other parts of the body. Some existing cancer treatments in the US and Europe work in a similar way, but researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute told Wired that they hope to investigate whether they can use Cimavax as a preventive treatment. They're also planning to look into whether Cimavax might be useful against other types of cancer, in which epidermal growth factor plays a role.
Does it work? A 2008 clinical trial reported that patients who received Cimavax lived an average of four to six months longer than patients who didn't, probably because the drug limited the growth of tumours and prevented metastasis. On the other hand, lung cancer remains the fourth largest cause of death in the island nation. Cuba, where about 23.8 people out of every 100,000 develop lung cancer, has the twelfth-highest incidence of the disease in the world. The US ranks third; lung cancer strikes 33.7 people out of every 100,000 here.
Cuba's medical research industry is among the best in the world, which seems surprising, given the impoverished situation of most of its people. The Castro regime reportedly made preventative medicine a spending priority, enabling the development of drugs like Cimavax.
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