Safe, cheap and effective: The dream cancer treatment

December 30th, 2015 by Holly Cornish

There’s one cancer that kills more people than colon, prostate, and breast cancer combined. It’s the number one cancer killer in the United States, and is next to impossible to diagnose in the early stages.

This means most cases aren’t caught till they’re advanced and hard to treat. Tragically, more than half of patients die within a year of their diagnosis.

But incredibly, there’s now a vaccine for it, and it’s been helping victims in Cuba for years. Shockingly, it only debuted in the U.S. roughly six months ago. Keep reading to learn the identity of the killer and this possible new solution. . .

Keep reading to get the full story. . .

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It’s lung cancer that kills more people than any other type, and the vaccine is called CimaVax. It was developed in Cuba to treat non-small cell lung cancer (about 85 to 90 percent of all lung cancers). The treatment comes with some big promises, which so far, have been confirmed by several studies.

CimaVax works by blocking a hormone that makes lung cancer tumors grow. It doesn’t exactly cure cancer, instead working somewhat indirectly at the therapeutic level. That means it targets the tumor itself and attempts to kill the proteins that let a tumor grow out of control.

U.S. scientists want to spend the next few years testing the results of vaccinating people who are at high-risk levels for lung or head-and-neck cancer due to smoking. The vaccine doesn’t pave the way for you to go out and smoke a pack a day without risk, but it could save you from having to face a cancer diagnosis, or even a recurrence.

But the leading question on most peoples’ minds is, “Why Cuba?” More importantly, how did a small island nation with a poor economy come up with a powerhouse vaccine before U.S. scientists? For that matter, before all the other leading countries in technology and medical development?

Some say it’s because Cuba has been pushed toward innovation for the simple fact that their resources were so meager. Plus, there’s something to be said for being motivated. Lung cancer is a massive public health crisis in Cuba, and the fourth-leading cause of death there.

Cuba has the highest smoking rate in the world. In a poll, 40% of Cuban adults said they’d smoked the day before. The figure in the United States is 24%.

Cuban scientists have researched CimaVax for 25 years now, creating an impressive body of evidence that supports use of the vaccine. In 2007, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology looked at patients with stage IIIB and stage IV lung cancer. Results showed an increase in tumor-reducing antibody production in over half the cases.

An increased survival rate for participants under the age of 60 was also observed, and the vaccine was confirmed to be safe.

In 2011, CimaVax was rolled out to the Cuban public—at no out-of-pocket cost to the patients. (All health care in Cuba is government-provided – what some people mistakenly call “free.”)

The cost of producing and administering the vaccine is remarkably low. The Cuban government pays just $1 per shot, and family physicians are able to give the vaccinations. Apparently there are no side effects.

As of now, over 5,000 patients worldwide have used the drug, 1,000 of whom reside in Cuba. A newer study conducted in Cuba that looks at just over 400 patients confirms what’s been found by earlier studies—that the drug is safe and effective.

Reduction in political tensions made a deal possible

If you’re wondering how the U.S. finally got in the loop for this promising treatment after being at loggerheads with Cuba since the height of the Cold War, it happened last spring. Because of President Obama’s easing of restrictions on the 55-year-long trade embargo against Cuba, joint research deals like this can now be explored.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo embarked on a historic trade mission to Cuba. His goal was to secure an enticing commodity: the lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba. And that’s exactly what he initiated.

The Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology signed an agreement last April with Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The plan is to import CimaVax for clinical trials in the U.S.

While some have speculated that the trade embargo damaged American interests by keeping CimaVax and other promising treatments away from us, nearly all the rest of the world has traded with Cuba for decades, yet CimaVax has not yet been approved for use anywhere else, as far as I can gather. It is undergoing trials or is in the approval process in eight or ten countries.

True to form, the U.S. is already at work on its own version of the vaccine, one called GVAX and another known as BLP 25. I tremble to think what these vaccines will cost by the time the pharmaceutical companies do their usual number. I don’t find much to admire in either the Cuban OR American health care systems.

This vaccine may help millions of other cancer victims

It’s worth pointing out the naming issue here. To call this drug a vaccine is to create the misconception that you can be protected from lung cancer. After all, a vaccine is meant to provide your body with “active acquired immunity” to specific diseases.

CimaVax won’t make you immune to lung cancer, yet it works the same way other vaccines do. Each dose has a tiny, harmless fragment of what your immune system needs to target, be it a virus, bacteria, and so forth. And like many vaccines, it’s paired with other chemicals that ramp up your immune system.

But where most vaccines protect us against infectious pathogens like measles, CimaVax activates your immune system and gets it to target epidermal growth factor (a protein our bodies produce naturally).

Cancer cells like to take up this protein and use it as their power source, attracting it so they can multiply. But if epidermal growth factor gets blocked from reaching cancerous cells, it could stop them from growing and spreading. It won’t kill the cancer, but it essentially cuts off the food source.

What particularly interests me is that this approach could complement other cancer treatments. Some medical experts think it could be an effective way to stop cancer from developing or recurring. U.S. researchers want to explore the vaccine’s potential as a preventative intervention, which would make it more like a traditional vaccine.

According to Dr. Kelvin Lee, Jacobs Family Chair in Immunology and co-leader of the Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Program at Roswell Park, there’s reason to believe the vaccine can go on to treat other cancers where epidermal growth factor plays a role, including breast, prostate, ovarian, colorectal, and head-and-neck cancers.

It appears Cuban researchers didn’t test CimaVax on other types of cancer, mostly due to the cost. Preclinical studies using CimaVax have already begun at Roswell Park.

Meanwhile, remember CimaVax is not a cure-all. You certainly can’t go out and get your shot and then turn around and smoke a cigar a few times a day. But I’m happy to report trials are planned in multiple countries, and in the U.S. they may be in progress by the time you read this, or soon after.

As a postscript, if you’re a nonsmoker, you may wonder whether this vaccine matters to you. People who don’t smoke DO get lung cancer, albeit at much lower rates (1.3% for male non-smokers vs. 17.2% for male smokers). According to Cancer.org, about one out of five lung cancer victims are non-smokers.

The number of lung cancer deaths each years among nonsmokers ranges from 16,000 to 24,000, making it a greater danger than, for example, melanoma skin cancer (about 10,000 deaths) or ovarian cancer (about 14,000). Radon and asbestos exposure are rated the most common causes of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

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