The US is close to getting a lung cancer vaccine — from Cuba

Non-small cell lung cancer

There’s a new lung cancer vaccine in town.

Well, almost.

For now, it’s still in Cuba, where it’s already being given out for free as part of a course of routine treatment for people with advanced lung cancer. But it’s on track to show up on American shores soon, possibly within a year, according to Wired.

The vaccine, called CimaVax, is the result of a collaboration between US and Cuban research centres. The software for the effort is being provided by Manhattan-based tech company Infor.

Last month, the New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute announced it would work with Havana’s Center for Molecular Immunology to bring the vaccine to the US during a meeting between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, and several Cuban trade officials, Bloomberg reports. That meeting made Cuomo the first US governor to visit Cuba since President Obama eased travel restrictions to the country.

CimaVax helps treat lung cancer’s symptoms — which can include chest pain, hoarseness, and intense fatigue — and could help prevent the disease from recurring, or coming back, in people who have gone a period of time with no symptoms, Roswell Park Cancer Institute Director Candace Johnson told WIVB News 4.

Johnson hopes to get approval for testing CimaVax in the US within 6-8 months and to start clinical trials of the drug within a year, she told Wired.

Why Cuba?

Cuba leads the world with its high concentration of health workers. They have around 600 doctors and nurses for every 100,000 citizens; the US has about 250 doctors and nurses for every 100,000 citizens.

And Cuba puts them to work. The country has a floating squadron of 50,000 doctors and nurses on the ground in developing countries led by the government. In the US, that program’s closest parallel is Doctors Without Borders, but that program is run by a nonprofit organisation.

Plus, despite spending far less on healthcare per person than the US does, Cuba has nearly the same average life expectancy.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in 12 of Cuba’s 15 provinces. In 2011, nearly three decades after researchers at the Center for Molecular Immunology began working on the drug, the Cuban government began making it available to its citizens at no cost, Wired reports.

A 2010 review of phase two trials of CimaVax conducted in Cuba between 1995 and 2005 found that patients with lung cancer who got Cimavax lived an average of 4-6 months longer than those who got traditional treatments. These trials occurred in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which comprises roughly 85% to 90% of all lung cancers. NSCLC includes three different sub-types of lung cancer and can occur in people who smoke and people who don’t.

When advanced, NSCLC is currently considered incurable.

Less than 30% of people with a form of NSCLC that has spread throughout the body respond to the most commonly used initial treatment in this stage of the disease, platinum-based chemotherapy. Even when other forms of treatment are added, the median life expectancy for patients with this type of NSCLC is one a year after diagnosis. Just 3.5% of patients survive 5 years.

Promising, but not a panacea

Though promising, it’s unlikely that the drug is going to cure or eliminate lung cancer anytime soon, since it’s designed to work by attacking a certain type of protein that cancer tumours produce rather than the cancer tumours themselves.

As such, the drug helps take advantage of someone’s existing immune response, coaxing the body into releasing a flood of antibodies to curb tumour growth. In some people, this treatment could have the capacity to transform lung cancer from an immediate death sentence into a long term, semi-manageable disease.

“With this kind of product, maybe cancer, advanced cancer, can be treated like any other chronic disease like diabetes,” Center for Molecular Immunology scientist Gisela Gonzales told Xinhua News back in 2011.

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