U.S.-Cuba medical partnership may bring lung cancer vaccine to local pharmacies

Since 2011, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and the Center for Molecular Immunology in Havana have had a unique partnership. Following news that the United States would begin changing policies towards Cuba, researchers from Roswell Park joined a NY State delegation to Cuba led by Governor Andrew Cuomo. They brought back an innovative vaccine against lung cancer that could be a game changer.

Dr. Kelvin Lee, Chairman of Immunology at Roswell Park, says that the really exciting thing about this vaccine is in prevention, "We are not talking about immunizing 5-year-old kids to prevent them from getting lung cancer. We're really talking about immunizing people that don't have lung cancer but are at a very high risk to get it."

With lung cancer being the number one cancer killer in the U.S., a lot is at stake. The vaccine works by targeting for destruction an essential growth factor on the surface of the cancer that enables it to thrive. The vaccine is safe and cheap, only $1 a dose in Cuba, according to Dr. Lee.

We spoke with Dr. Tania Crombet, medical director at the Center of Molecular Immunology in Havana, Cuba, who said that "with the vaccine you will have an improvement in your overall survival together with an improvement in your quality of life, and apart from other drugs this is very safe. So the majority of the adverse effects are very mild."

Thanks to a growing collaboration between doctors here and Cuban researchers, the day may be coming soon when you'll be able to walk into your local pharmacy and get a vaccine to treat lung cancer or even to prevent it.

The doctors at Roswell Park say that lack of resources force their Cuban colleagues to find more innovative approaches to public health. Cimavax must still be approved by the FDA – a process that may take months – before doctors at Roswell Park can begin a clinical trial.

Dr. Candace S. Johnson, Roswell Park Cancer Institute President & CEO, is excited about the new partnership. "It is through our collaboration that we are going to be able to bring this vaccine to the U.S. and evaluate it and see its potential efficacy to help patients with lung cancer or other cancers. This vaccine has implications across a number of different tumor types.  It is a unique opportunity for Roswell Park and the Cubans to be able to develop this."

The Cuban researchers have other vaccines and inexpensive treatments in the works that interest Roswell Park. The international collaboration between these two institutions bodes well for the future of cancer care — not just with lung, but breast, colon, and pancreas as well.

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