HAVANA, Cuba — Diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States may be strained but the two countries are standing shoulder to shoulder to fight a common enemy: cancer.
The first biotechnical collaboration between the two countries is aiming to test the effectiveness of a Cuban treatment for lung cancer to see whether it could be used for US patients.
Although still in the test stage, the CIMAvax-EGF treatment has made a lot of noise over the last few months, even before the announcement of this unprecedented partnership.
Various internet sites have claimed it’s a miracle cure, but experts say the truth is more complex than that.
According to Orestes Santos, a researcher at Havana’s molecular immunology center, rather than a vaccination, the treatment involves the “active immunology” of the so-called EGF, or epidermal growth factor, protein that stimulates cell growth.
“The lung cancer tumor needs EGF to grow and proliferate, and what we’ve done in our center is develop a product that generates antibodies against this protein,” Santos told AFP.
“It’s an extra weapon in the fight against cancer, which combines with other therapeutic weapons like chemotherapy.”
Interested by their work, the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Buffalo, New York, formed a partnership with the Cuban center during a US business mission to the island nation in 2015. That year the two Cold War foes restored diplomatic relations after decades of enmity.
Looking for approval
“The Cuban-American enterprise aims to finance the development (of treatment) and bring about new, bigger and more complete clinical tests on American soil,” said Kalet Leon Monzon, assistant director at the molecular immunology center.
The aim is to have the treatment registered by American health authorities so it can be used on patients in the country.
The treatment, which has been administered by monthly injections at the Cuban center since 2011, has already been approved in Bosnia, Paraguay, Peru, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
“More than 5,000 people worldwide use active immunology with CIMAvax,” said Dr. Soraida Acosta Brooks, president of the clinical tests department in a hospital in Santiago de Cuba.
As it turns out, medical and scientific cooperation between the two countries has always transcended official relations.
Despite the US economic embargo on Cuba implemented in 1962, “it’s one of the last diplomatic levers that was maintained,” says Nils Graber, a PhD student in anthropology at the school of higher education in social sciences in Paris.
“American researchers participated in Cuban conferences and Cuban scientists were trained in the United States.”
No miracle cure
Cuba has been a pioneer in the fight against cancer, says Graber, who has written a thesis on the island nation’s scientific innovation.
But he says that “media treatment of Cuba is still binary and Manichean, with announcements of the discovery of a miracle cure… and on the other side articles that immediately try to discredit the Cuban research.”
When it comes to CIMAvax, “it’s untrue. There’s no miraculous cure developed in Cuba. It’s similar to what’s being done elsewhere.”
All over the world, many researchers are studying immunology — the science of activating the immune system — to tackle cancer.
A pair of immunologists, an American and a Japanese, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”
But CIMAvax rests on “a unique mechanism” as it “starves the cancerous cells,” according to Doug Plessinger, head of scientific development at Roswell Park.
But there is still much work to be done.
The results from the first tests on 30 American patients, recently revealed at a lung cancer congress in Toronto, are “very encouraging” but researchers recognize the need to produce a wider sample group to conclusively demonstrate the effectiveness of the technique.
Professor Fabrice Andre, from the Gustave-Roussey cancer research institute near Paris, says the “difference between the survival of vaccinated and non-vaccinated patients isn’t considered sufficiently great for the community to state that the vaccination works.”