This story is from the 2017 Access FYI: How Young Innovators Are Connecting the World. Explore more from this issue

Cuba: Access to a New World of Innovation

A cutting-edge treatment for cancer is among the innovations coming out of Cuba.

When diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were formally restored in 2015 after 55 years, it was the first of several promising signs about what may be in store for the two countries. Although a trade embargo remains in place, thawing relations could have big implications. U.S. manufacturers, retailers and agricultural producers see big potential for Cuban trade. But U.S. exports aren’t the only story. Imports that have been off limits for decades present a world of opportunity — and access to new innovations. One example? A new way to treat lung cancer.

In October 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced that the Federal Drug Administration had approved the first U.S.-based clinical trial to test a Cuban drug. The CIMAvax-EGF vaccine was developed by Havana’s Center of Molecular Immunology as a treatment for lung cancer — the most common type of cancer worldwide and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

Despite the term “vaccine,” CIMAvax is designed to slow the spread of the disease in patients who have either already contracted lung cancer or who show high risk of contracting it in the future. Administered as a simple monthly shot in the arm, CIMAvax has been shown to significantly prolong lives during trials conducted in Cuba and other parts of the world. The treatment costs roughly $1 a dose and appears to be far less toxic than chemotherapy, leading to a better quality of life for patients.

The Buffalo, New York–based Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) has planned a three-year trial to evaluate the drug for use in the U.S. The RPCI also announced an interest in more cross-border collaborations with the Center of Molecular Immunology, including a second vaccine that may target blood cancer. No wonder why Dr. Kelvin Lee, chair of the Department of Immunology at RPCI, calls Cuba “one of the unique incubators in the world for medical research.”

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