Dr. Kelvin Lee discusses a Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine.

The thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba has produced an unlikely benefit. Lung cancer patients in the U.S. may soon have access to a promising vaccine developed in Cuba. CimaVax, the vaccine developed by the Havana-based Center for Molecular Immunology, is being tested for the U.S. market by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, N.Y.

“A very large clinical trial in advanced stage lung cancer shows that the vaccine extends life considerably,” said Dr. Kelvin Lee, professor and chair of immunology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The vaccine is “cheap, safe, effective and easy to give, once a month” with a shot in the shoulder, and has “very little toxicity,” he added. “The Cubans have based their biotechnology on being able to apply it across a large population safely, economically and quickly.”

Dr. Lee recently appeared on the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to discuss efforts to bring the vaccine to the U.S. The Knowledge at Wharton show airs 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Eastern time Monday-Friday on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. Lee also spoke about the vaccine during the recent Cuba Finance, Infrastructure and Investment Summit in New York. The event was organized by Knowledge at Wharton, The Lauder Institute and Momentum Event Group.

CimaVax has thus far been administered to 5,000 patients worldwide, including 1,000 Cubans. The Roswell Institute will conduct early studies to test its efficacy in the U.S., attempt to secure regulatory approval and partner with private sector companies.

“What if you could vaccinate them with something that was cheap, safe, effective and easy to give … and reduce their risk of lung cancer?”–Dr. Kelvin Lee

Dr. Lee said CimaVax “looks like a vaccine to [also] prevent measles, mumps and other infectious diseases.” His institute is also exploring the potential of using it to combat colon, head and neck, prostate, breast, and pancreatic cancers, he wrote in a recent blog post on Roswell’s website.

The vaccine made its way to the U.S. after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a group of businessmen visited Cuba earlier this year to rebuild trade relations. Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s president and CEO Dr. Candace Johnson was part of that group.

Targeting Growth Stimulators

Dr. Lee said most cancer vaccines set the immune system to target the cancer cell itself. CimaVax instead targets the “epidermal growth factor,” or EGF, in the body that stimulates cell growth, including cancer cells. The Cuban vaccine triggers an immune response against EGF, thereby depleting the growth factor and stops cancer cells from growing, he explained.

Dr. Lee said he is encouraged by the possibility that CimaVax could be used for prevention as well. With lung cancer screening now covered by many insurance companies, he expected more people to find that they have early-stage lung cancer and get the cancer cells surgically removed. While those patients may be “technically cured,” chances are that the heavy smokers among them may have other potential cancers throughout their lungs, he said. Dr. Lee noted that statistics show that half of those patients will have a relapse within eight years. “What if you could vaccinate them with something that was cheap, safe, effective and easy to give … and reduce their risk of lung cancer?”