HAVANA – A Cuban Scientific Research Institute just patented a promising new drug that it says helps terminal lung cancer patients live longer.
In some cases, the drug known as CimaVax EGF extended the lives of participants in the treatment trials by close to a year.
|Roberto Leon / NBC News|
|Dr. Gisela Gonzalez, head of the Cuban cancer research team, holding vials of the new drug.|
CimaVax EGF, is classified as a therapeutic vaccine, because it is composed of modified proteins that help the body recognize and destroy cancer cells for those already suffering from lung cancer. It does not prevent lung cancer.
"It is the first lung cancer vaccine to be patented in the world," said Dr. Gisela Gonzalez, head of the team that researched and developed the drug through testing with hundreds of patients over 16 years.
She did point out that other countries are working on similar vaccines, but that they are still in the development stage.
Gonzalez cautioned that while it is "not a miracle drug," she does believe it is a "breakthrough in treating terminally ill patients."
While the research team would not identify any side effects of CimaVax EFG, Gonzalez claims it has numerous advantages over traditional treatments alone. Patients breathe easier, experience less fatigue, less pain and increased appetite. It is administered in conjunction with conventional treatments of chemo and radiotherapy.
CimaVax EGF is undergoing testing in other countries.
After Cuba concluded the Phase One study that determined safe dosage and the best way to administer the vaccine, Phase Two trials started in Cuba, Canada and England, said Gonzalez. This August additional ones begin in China and Peru. Already the vaccine is being registered in Malaysia for sale in Europe.
While testing has been approved by the U.S. government, clinical studies may not begin for at least two years.
The Phase Two studies that were conducted in Cuba and elsewhere took a look at how much longer patients lived with CimaVax EGF as compared to other treatments. Those given the vaccine lived on average 11.47 months compared to 5.33 months for terminal patients treated with only chemotherapy and/or radiation. In the best case scenarios, some fortunate patients lived for up to 18.53 months while taking the new vaccine, compared to other patients who lived for just 7.55 months while undergoing conventional treatment.
Given those clinical results, Cuba started Phase Three studies in the hope that CimaVax EGF could become the new standard of care in treating end stage lung cancer.
About 4,500 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed annually in Cuba while the disease claims over 1.3 million deaths worldwide annually, with the highest rates in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Across the globe, lungs are the most common site of fatal cancers for both women and men. Lung cancer generally affects people over 50 who have a history of smoking, although other risk factors include exposure to second hand tobacco smoke or pollutant emissions from cars or factories.
CimaVax EGF could also prove effective in slowing other cancers, believes Dr. Tania Crombet, the team’s chief clinical researcher at Havana’s Center for Molecular Immunology. She said that researchers have begun testing CimaVax EGF’s effectiveness against breast, prostate, uterus and pancreas cancers.
Crombet also said CimaVax EGF is now available in Cuban hospitals for any patient, regardless of nationality. "We can market the vaccine in Cuba and receive patients from outside."
And that could mean an influx of fresh, hard currency for the struggling island’s economy.
With more than 7,000 scientists dedicated to researching new drugs, Cuba has one of the most sophisticated biotech industries in the developing world. Last year the country earned $350 million from exporting 180 different medicines.