Cuba’s Inventive Vaccine Could Treat More Than Just Lung Cancer

A cancer vaccine first tested in Cuba nearly 20 years ago may finally be making its way into the American health system.

The two countries have been at loggerheads since the height of the Cold War, though a recent thaw in relations is opening new lines of communication, including among scientists.

Since economic sanctions began in the 1960s, Cuban scientists have “had to do more with less,” Candace Johnson told Neel Patel at Wired. This, she says, has fostered a unique research culture. Johnson is the CEO of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York, which will be working with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology to apply for FDA approval of the vaccine. Johnson hopes that clinical trials of the vaccine, called Cimavax, will begin in a year.

Cimavax, the cancer vaccine developed in Cuba, targets a protein that helps cancers like lung cancer grow.

Cimavax works the same as any other vaccine—each dose delivers an innocuous fragment of what we want the immune system to target (virus, bacteria, and so on) along with chemicals that amp up the immune system. The vaccines we’re most familiar with protect us against pathogens that can infect us, like the measles virus.

Cimavax, though, directs the immune system’s defenses to target a protein that our own bodies produce called epidermal growth factor, which cancer cells attract and use to multiply. Blocking epidermal growth factor from reaching the cancerous cells won’t kill the cancer, but could stop it from growing and spreading. (It’s important to point out that Cimavax isn’t a preventative treatment—you can’t take a shot of it and continue smoking without fear of lung cancer.)

It’s a unique approach that could compliment treatments developed elsewhere. Here’s Neel Patel, reporting for Wired:

In the US and Europe, people with lung cancer already have treatment options with the same goal. Roswell Park researchers say they plan to explore the vaccine’s potential as a preventative intervention—making it more like a traditional vaccine. Furthermore, epidermal growth factor plays an important role in many other cancers, like prostate, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. “All those things are potential targets for this vaccine,” says Kelvin Lee, an immunologist at the company. Mostly for financial reasons, Cubans didn’t test Cimavax that way at all.

Now that the Obama administration is working towards reestablishing relations with Cuba, more cross-pollination of biomedical research between our two countries may be on the horizon. Given the Cubans’ inventive use of limited resources, we could probably learn a thing or two from them.