5 Things You Need to Know About Cuba’s Lung Cancer Vaccine

A vaccine developed in Cuba that has the power to extend life in lung cancer sufferers is now making its way to the United States for further trials and research. Here’s what you need to know about this important advance in both medicine and Cuban relations.

1. What Does the Lung Cancer Vaccine Actually Do?

The vaccine, known as CimaVax EGF, is for small cell lung cancer and it works by targeting a protein known as epidermal growth factor or EGF. That’s the naturally occurring signal that tells cells in the body to grow and divide. Some cancers make the body produce large amounts of EGF, which then leads to cells dividing and growing uncontrollably. CimaVax introduces EGF into the body and then prompts the body to begin binding EGF, which in turn stops it from reaching the receptors on cancer cells. This effectively interrupts the signal that would have told the cancer cells to keep growing and dividing. For people who already have small cell lung cancer, there is evidence that it can slow the progress of the cancer which in turn could mean the difference between early stage localized cancer and a cancer that has spread.

2. What Stage is Research of the Lung Cancer Vaccine At?

Twenty-five years of research supports the vaccine, and a number of small trials with cancer patients have shown that vaccine has some modest but still significant results.

A trial published in 2008, for instance, showed that among 80 people, some of whom were given chemotherapy and then the vaccine and some who were just given chemotherapy, those who had the vaccine tended to live about four to six months longer. Perhaps even more important, they reported a better over-all quality of life, with reductions in symptoms like coughing and breathlessness.

There were some side-effects but these were mostly very mild, from sweating to chills, and feeling sick, though interestingly the trial seemed to show that the vaccine offered the most benefit to people under the age of 60.

So confident is Cuba about this vaccine, that it’s actually been available to cancer patients–for free–since 2011 and USA Today reports the vaccine has been used to treat some 5,000 patients across the world.

So that’s where the research is now, but what about in the future? It is hoped that the “groundbreaking” study at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., which comes about by way of a historic deal that was signed by Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology last month, will investigate not just the benefits that have already been established, but will be able to draw on new resources and insights to see if researchers can boost the affects and make this vaccine even more of a promising tool in the fight against lung cancer.

In particular, the researchers say they are interested in two key things: if the vaccine can be used to prevent lung cancer returning in those who have had cancerous masses removed, and if it may offer a preventative effect for those who are at high risk of developing lung cancer, for instance people who have lung cancer in the family and those who have a history of smoking.

This all begs the question though:

3. Why Haven’t We Been Able to Access the Vaccine Until Now?

Put simply, this is down to the U.S.’s decades long economic blockade on Cuba and the resulting lack of civil relations between the two countries.

When President Obama announced that those restrictions would be eased, much to the dismay of a segment of Republicans and a handful of Democratic lawmakers too, he opened the door for the U.S. to access Cuba’s medical innovations which, despite the challenges that Cuba might face, has been a priority for the country and has become somewhat of a national pride (and for good reason). This specific deal, though, is the result of a trade mission which was led by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In case you are wondering, as a trade-off Cuba will receive new medical technologies to update their own systems and machinery, which in turn will help them pursue new medical innovations.

4. Does This Mean the Vaccine Will Soon Be Available to Everyone in the U.S.?

The vaccine is being researched alongside two other vaccines that were developed within the United States, however the CimaVax vaccine has a considerable head-start on those other vaccines in terms of research supporting its safety and effectiveness. There will need to be trials to confirm those aspects of the vaccine, but it is hoped that roll out for patients can happen relatively quickly. The researchers will need to first win approval from the FDA for a phase 1 trial, but this seems like a formality rather than any kind of potential barrier.

5. Why is This Vaccine So Exciting?

Cuba, in terms of world economies at least, doesn’t have a lot of resources and so when it comes to its medical advances it has had to be creative, and the CimaVax vaccine is an example of that. By essentially starving the tumor of the EGF it needs to grow, this vaccine is innovative in a way that other cancer vaccines have not been, and there is hope that U.S. scientists might be able to use a similar approach to essentially starve other cancers that rely on EGF to proliferate, including some kinds of breast cancer.

This vaccine represents just one of the ways in which the Obama administration hopes to profit from good relations with Cuba, an exchange that will benefit both countries moving forward.