U.S. quietly lifts medical embargo on Cuba, opening floodgates for new drugs

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)  (2014 Getty Images)

While much of the country has been excited about a recent rule change allowing Americans to buy as much Cuban rum and cigars as they want, the medical community has been trumpeting the easing of the Cuban embargo for a different reason.

Last week, the Obama administration quietly lifted obstacles to medical research out of Cuba that may have far-reaching impacts for hundreds of thousands of Americans with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

On Oct. 14, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a lift in a medical embargo allowing U.S. medical research centers to collaborate with Cubans in commercial as well as non-commercial research.

The lift will also allow Cuban-developed pharmaceuticals to enter the normal FDA authorization process and be sold in the U.S. once it is granted approval.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced on Wednesday that she will travel to Cuba with National Institute of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins to visit various medical sites focused on healthcare and research.

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“The Cubans have developed really novel cancer drugs and other drugs that U.S. patients have not had access to. Now we can research these in a pilot or phase one,” Dr. Thomas Schwaab, chief of strategy, business development and outreach at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, told Fox News Latino.

One of the novel cancer drugs Schwaab and Roswell Park are most excited about is called CimaVax – the first vaccine to treat lung cancer, a disease that kills an average of 432 Americans every day.

In a 2007 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, CimaVax was shown to be safe and effective and may even prevent the disease.

CimaVax has been researched in Cuba for 25 years and has been free to the Cuban public since 2011. More than 3,000 patients have received treatment with the vaccine, and in December of 2015 clinical trials were expanded to treat Stages 2 and 3 of the disease.

Although there’s still a long way to go before CimaVax will be commercially available to Americans, Schwaab says there’s a lot to be learned from Cuban’s “population health” model, where drugs are produced for very little money.

Each dose of CimaVax costs $1 to produce and has low levels of toxicity, experts said. Since the vaccine is essentially training the immune system to fight cancer, it doesn't cause hair loss like traditional treatments such as chemotherapy.

Roswell Park intends to begin clinical trials of CimaVax later this year or early 2017.

“The reason why it’s exciting is because we don’t have any treatment alternative for patients with recurring lung cancer, it would immediately help a lot of American patients,” Schwaab says.

Dr. Kelvin Lee, chair of the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park, told Fox News Latino that his team learned about vaccines being developed in Cuba that target only cancer cells to lessen the drug's toxicity and vaccines for cholesterol which would allow addressing heart disease. It even has a nose spray that may reverse traumatic brain injury.

“…There's a lot of exciting biotechnology happening in Cuba," Lee told FNL earlier this year. "The life expectancy in Cuba is the same as in the U.S. The infant mortality rate is the same as in the U.S… They're very innovative and thoughtful, doing a lot as economically as possible."

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.