Health

Why American Researchers Want To Use Cuba’s Cancer Drugs

CREDIT: AP Photo/Javier Galeano

Medicine students look through microscopes at a laboratory of the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana

During the 55-year, United States-led trade embargo, the Cuban government used what little resources it had to spur innovation in preventative medicine. Now, with the newly normalized relationship between the U.S. and the small Caribbean nation, American researchers want to seize an opportunity to expand access to Cuba’s medical investments.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently visited Havana to broker a deal between between cancer researchers in his state and Cuban officials, who have created a potentially promising therapeutic vaccine against lung cancer that is headed to the United States for clinical trials.

The Cuban Ministry of Health made the vaccine, named CimaVax, available to the public in 2011 after researchers at Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology tweaked the formula for 25 years. At a dollar per shot, the government has been able to protect Cubans against what has become the fourth-leading cause of death in the country by attacking proteins that cause cancerous tumors to grow.

CimaVax slows the growth of cancerous cells by stimulating the body’s immune response and spurring the creation of antibodies that stunt the development of tumors. While the vaccine doesn’t totally cure the lung cancer, it extends life expectancy by four to six months and reduces symptoms like coughing and breathlessness, as seen in clinical trials conducted in 2008.

“The chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect,” Candace Johnson, CEO of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, told Wired.com. John said that she hopes to get approval for testing Cimavax within six to eight months before starting clinical trials. “They’ve had to do more with less so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things. For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”

Japan and some European countries have launched trial studies of their own to explore Cimavax’s potential. And now, with a finalized agreement between the Center for Molecular Immunology and Roswell Park, researchers here too hope to make Cimavax a Food and Drug Administration-approved drug.

Attitudes about Cuba’s approach to health care are typically split along party lines. Liberals extol Cuba for its expanding effective, low-cost care to all citizens, while conservatives — notably Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is from Cuba — often touch on the medical shortages that took place under the Castros. The conversation about Cuba’s vaccine adds to this political debate, sparking discussion about the state of cancer research in the United States and how that may contribute to the U.S. falling behind its former rival in some areas of health care.

Since the launch of Rural Medical Service in the 1960s and the subsequent revitalization of health care networks for poor Cubans, the focus on prevention, rather than treatment, has helped the island nation keep its health care costs in check. Annual health care costs average about $300 per person — more than 20 times less than that of American patients — and all Cubans have access to nearly 33,000 family physicians that conduct regular home visits. There are few barriers to access for those seeking treatments, since the Cuban government distributes medication through hospitals free of charge and sells them in its pharmacy system at high subsidized rates.

Perhaps due to this access to preventative services, the average Cuban lives to the age of 78, significantly longer than their American counterparts.

Turning its attention to developing nations, Cuba has also been effective in producing generic medicine, priced much lower than products created by major pharmaceutical companies. In deviating from American health policy, natural and alternative medicines have also been introduced in the country for years. Since 1963, Cuban doctors have traveled throughout the Third World to treat the poor. Today, nearly 30,000 Cuban medical staff work on different continents. Some of those medical professionals converged on West Africa at the height of the Ebola outbreak last year.

The country’s investment in medical research has led to other breakthroughs for Cuba, including vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B and monoclonal antibodies for kidney transplants. Some critics of U.S.-Cuban relations speculate that the American media largely ignored those advances during the decades of embargo. Global health leaders, meanwhile, have praised Cuba for its accomplishments in this area.

“Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development,” World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters after her visit to the island nation last year. She said that Cuba has debunked the age old assumption that a lack of resources threatens access to care, instead blaming lack of political interest in protecting a vulnerable underclass. “This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation. The country’s leadership [has also made] health an essential pillar of development.”

Even with the potential for a medical breakthrough domestically, collaboration between the United States and Cuba for medical research will continue to stall unless Congress lifts restrictions of medical and research equipment that have prevented federally funded projects in the past. Additionally, the question remains of whether the lung cancer vaccine, if approved, would be affordable for Americans, 14 percent of whom receive a lung cancer diagnosis annually. Generic prescription drug prices have increased by 1,000 percent, in part because of a merger between drug companies, which has lowered competition and given them more leverage.