HEALTH

Cuba's lung cancer vaccine is heading to the U.S. for clinical trials

CAMBRIDGE, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 09:  A Scientist looks at cells through a fluorescent microscope at the laboratories at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute on December 9, 2014 in Cambridge, England. Cancer Research UK is the world's leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research. Its vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured. They have saved millions of lives by discovering new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, and as such the survival rate in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years. Cancer Research UK funds over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses across the UK, more than 33,000 patients who join clinical trials each year and a further 40,000 volunteers that give their time to support the work. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)

CAMBRIDGE, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 09: A Scientist looks at cells through a fluorescent microscope at the laboratories at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute on December 9, 2014 in Cambridge, England. Cancer Research UK is the world's leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research. Its vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured. They have saved millions of lives by discovering new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, and as such the survival rate in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years. Cancer Research UK funds over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses across the UK, more than 33,000 patients who join clinical trials each year and a further 40,000 volunteers that give their time to support the work. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)  (2014 Getty Images)

Since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, the communist nation has been known for, among other things, its "medical diplomacy" – sending doctors and medicine to far flung parts of the globe in order to foster goodwill and gain allies on the world stage.

But because of the long-standing embargo against Cuba, one of the few blank spots on the island's medical diplomatic list has been the United States. That, however, is changing quickly after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a number of business leaders from the state travelled to Cuba earlier this month on a trade mission.

During the trip, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York signed an agreement to import a revolutionary Cuban lung cancer vaccine called CimaVax that helps treat symptoms and recurrence of the deadly disease.

"This vaccine is cheap to make, it is effective and it has no toxicity," Kelvin Lee, the chief of immunology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, told Fox News Latino. "It will treat people with lung cancer and could potentially prevent cancer in people who don't already have it."

The drug was developed by the Cuban government-run Molecular Immunology Center in the 1990s and, despite being reported on by various medical and media organizations across the globe, Havana has kept its success a closely guarded secret.

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Talks about using CimaVax in the U.S. only began back in 2011 when Roswell Park opened up an academic exchange with their colleagues in Cuba.

A number of policies regarding U.S.-Cuban relations have been rewritten under the administration of President Barack Obama – not to mention last December's announcement that the Cold War-foes would restart diplomatic relations – that have allowed for this joint research to occur.

While the vaccine is a long way from hitting the American market, doctors at Roswell Park hope to get Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to begin clinical trials within eight months and soon after partner with a private company to develop the drug for U.S. patients. 

Along with the work taking place in upstate New York, Cuban scientists will also visit Buffalo to help with testing and research.

"The goal is to test it safely and ethically here in the U.S," the institute's director Candace Johnson told FNL.

The drug is already the market in Cuba, where it has treated around 1,000 people for lung cancer, and has been used on a total of 5,000 patients around the globe.

Despite universal healthcare in Cuba, the country's struggling economic situation and global isolation have made it difficult to maintain medical procedures like long-term chemotherapy – making CimaVax a promising alternative to pricier treatments.

"Plus it has less side-effects than a flu shot," Lee said.

Once the drug is approved for clinical trials, medical researchers in both the U.S. and Cuba are interested in seeing if the vaccine can be used to treat others forms of cancer beside lung cancer. 

Cuban researchers have focused on lung cancer given their limited financial resources and the fact that lung cancer is the most prevalent form of the disease on the island.

"Cuba has not tested it on other types of cancer, but it could potentially be used to treat skin, brain, colon and other forms of the disease," Lee added.

For medical researchers at Roswell Park the biggest challenge will be convincing U.S. authorities to allow this product to be tested in the country. But once they clear that hurdle, Lee said, it will be much easier to begin testing other types of vaccines and medicines developed in Cuba.

"They've got a lot of really cool products in Cuba and a lot to offer us," Lee said. "To us, this is not a one-off conversation but a continuing effort between us and Cuba."

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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