The persistent news coverage about Cuba’s biotech and pharmaceutical sectors suggests there is a boom underway.
The reality is not as expansive as the level of attention warrants, but there are several examples of credible collaborations that point to the potential for Cuba to contribute to the medical community.
Here is one example.
In 2011, Cuban scientists contacted Roswell Park Cancer Institute to discuss a vaccine CIM had developed for potential use in treating advanced stage lung cancer and other cancers.
After discussions that focused on the science as well as building trust, CIM and Roswell Park entered into an R&D partnership to test the Cuban vaccine, Cimavax.
Cimavax reportedly works by stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack epidermal growth factor, a naturally occurring protein that can feed cancerous tumors. Since 2011, the vaccine has been available for free to the public in Cuba. It also has been approved for use in Peru. Reportedly, experience to date with the vaccine is promising. CIM and Roswell Park seek to replicate research and development carried out in Cuba under U.S. gold standards for medical R&D.
Roswell Park applied to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, received a license, and has begun its R&D collaboration. The collaboration includes importing research samples; applying for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for U.S. clinical trials for the vaccine; carrying out early-phase clinical trials at Roswell Park to assess safety and efficacy; and, if all goes well, fostering future partnerships between CIM and U.S. firms interested in further development and commercialization of the vaccine. Other anti-cancer immunotherapies developed by CIM also are being studied at Roswell Park.
According to Roswell Park, CimaVax has been administered to 5,000 patients across the world, including 1,000 Cubans – as of last year. Expansive clinical trials have been underway for some time now, with published data showing prolonged life (especially in patients <60 yrs old, with a mean overall survival of 18.53 months in the vaccinated patients compared to 7.55 months for the unvaccinated patients) when compared to standard care, with minimal vaccine-related toxicity.
Roswell Park scientists attribute the success of the partnership to date to several factors. First, both sides have a shared mission in advancing cancer treatment to benefit the public good. Cuba’s biotech sector places a priority on delivering high-quality, affordable products, a priority shared by Roswell Park. Moreover, CIM has a commercial arm in Cuba and experienced legal counsel in the United States that have worked cooperatively with Roswell Park to facilitate the collaboration. While IPR-related questions may arise down the road, Roswell Park’s experience to date suggests that they may be manageable.
Normalizing relations between the two countries reportedly may open doors for collaborations in other areas, including vaccines against childhood meningitis, brain mapping, advanced wound care, alternative medicines, and best practices in delivering cost-effective care and preventive medicine for poor populations. According to a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health, one of the single biggest gains in public health from normalizing trade and travel with Cuba could be improved opportunities for medical research collaborations.
Sources: Lee, “Over the Straits,” October 8, 2015; Drain, “Implications of Repealing,” 2015; Medscape, “As Cuba-U.S. Relations Thaw,” July 7, 2015.