Cuba launched the world's first lung cancer vaccine, Cimavax, to the public back in 2011. Each shot costs about $1, but the Cuban government has made the vaccine available to the public for free. Now it's 2015, and other countries are starting to get curious and want to get their hands on it too.
The Center of Molecular Immunology, Cuba, has finalized agreements with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, USA, to embark on a project that aims to develop a lung cancer vaccine that was first made in Cuba and begin to introduce it into the United States. This will involve gaining Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for the vaccine and starting clinical trials.
This collaboration is exciting news. For 55 years, there has been a trade embargo led by the U.S. that's restricted Cuban travel and commerce. The Obama administration has been trying to normalize relations with Cuba, starting with lifting restrictions on research and medical equipment. Overcoming the embargo is the first step to creating forerunning medical collaborations such as this one.
“The chance to evaluate a vaccine like this is a very exciting prospect,” says Candace Johnson, CEO of Roswell Park. There's plenty to be excited about: Usually cancer vaccines are very expensive, but Cimavax is relatively cheap to produce and store. Patients who have cancer vaccines are also often plagued with side effects; the Cimavax, however, has shown little toxicity. Side effects to the vaccine so far have included nausea, chills, and fever.
While Cimavax is not a cure for cancer—and further testing will have to be done to truly understand the vaccine—the current results are promising. For example, a trial found a trend towards improved survival in all vaccinated patients, and a further two found the same in those whose immune systems responded well. And you have to admit, there's a sort of delicious irony that a country famous for its cigars are the world pioneers in an innovative lung cancer vaccine.
The vaccine contains a protein called epidermal growth factor (EGF). EGF, which stimulates the growth of cells, is found naturally in the body, but cancerous tumors can stimulate the body into producing too much of this protein. This causes the tumor to multiply and grow uncontrollably.
When vaccinated, EGF, among other compounds, enters the bloodstream of the patient and encourages the immune system to produce antibodies that suppress the effects of EGF. This prevents tumors from getting bigger, but doesn't directly attack them.
This vaccine is given to people who already have lung cancer. It isn't like a measles vaccine that is given to an infant who can then expect never to suffer from the disease. Known as a therapeutic vaccine, it is given to patients who already have cancerous tumors in their lungs. Cimavax inhibits their growth and stops them from spreading, or metastasizing, to other parts of the body, which makes treatment significantly more difficult.
While this vaccine was developed, and is currently only licensed, for lung cancer, researchers are hopeful that it could be used for other cancers. That's because rogue epidermal growth factor signaling doesn't just stimulate the development of tumors in the lungs; it is also known to play a role in prostate, breast, colon and pancreatic cancer. “All those things are potential targets for this vaccine,” says Kelvin Lee, an immunologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The current embargo between the U.S. and Cuba has been modified to make research collaborations such as this one possible. But for collaborative research to take off, Congress will need to make considerable changes to it. It would be an inspiring event to see the embargo dropped in the name of scientific research.