Cuban, U.S. team up to fight cancer

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE - By Katell Abiven

HA­VANA: 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 pa­tients in the U.S.

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 was re­vealed.

Var­i­ous in­ter­net sites have claimed it’s a mir­a­cle cure, but ex­perts say the truth is more com­plex than that.

Ac­cord­ing to Orestes San­tos, who is 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,” San­tos added.

In­ter­ested by their work, the Roswell Park Com­pre­hen­sive Cancer Cen­ter in Buf­falo, New York, formed a part­ner­ship with the Cuban cen­ter dur­ing a U.S. busi­ness mis­sion to the is­land na­tion in 2015. That year the two Cold War foes re­stored diplo­matic re­la­tions af­ter decades of en­mity.

“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 through 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 United States’ eco­nomic em­bargo on Cuba im­ple­mented in 1962, “it’s one of the last diplo­matic levers that was main­tained,” said Nils Graber, a PhD stu­dent in an­thro­pol­ogy at a school of higher ed­u­ca­tion in so­cial sciences in Paris.

“Amer­i­can re­searchers par­tic­i­pated in Cuban con­fer­ences and Cuban sci­en­tists were trained in the United States.”

Cuba has been a pi­o­neer in the fight against cancer, said Graber, who has also writ­ten a the­sis sur­round­ing the is­land na­tion’s sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion.

The treat­ment has been ap­proved in Bos­nia, Peru and Malaysia

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.

How­ever, 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, said 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.”

Cuban Dr. Mig­dalia Perez speaks with 6-year-old cancer pa­tient Noemi Bernardez and her mother El­iz­a­beth Navarro.

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