Cuba has more than sugar and tourism: biotech and lung cancer vaccine
May 17, 2015 3:58 PM   Subscribe

In 1989, Cuba conducted over 80% of its trade with Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CEMA, or Comecon), but with the relatively abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba was suddenly in a very tough economic position. Over the next years, the country focused on three key economies: sugar, tourism and biotechnology (Google books preview). While the first two seem logical enough, the story of biotech in Cuba, especially Havana at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), is getting more attention recently with Cuba's possible therapeutic vaccine against lung cancer.

From the Wired article (final link above the break):
To be fair, Cimavax probably won’t be a game-changing cancer drug in its current form. The vaccine doesn’t attack tumors directly, instead going after a protein that tumors produce which then circulates in the blood. That action spurs a person’s body to release antibodies against a hormone called epidermal growth factor, which typically spurs cell growth but can also, if unchecked, cause cancer. (Although most people normally think of a vaccine as something that prevents a disease, technically a vaccine is a substance that stimulates the immune system in some way.) So the point of Cimavax is to keep lung tumors from growing and metastasizing, turning a late-stage growth into something chronic but manageable.

But in the US and Europe, people with lung cancer already have treatment options with the same goal. Roswell Park researchers say they plan to explore the vaccine’s potential as a preventative intervention—making it more like a traditional vaccine. Furthermore, epidermal growth factor plays an important role in many other cancers, like prostate, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. “All those things are potential targets for this vaccine,” says Kelvin Lee, an immunologist at the company. Mostly for financial reasons, Cubans didn’t test Cimavax that way at all.
Cuba's status as a "pharmaceutical powerhouse" previously, with more coverage a decade ago from Wired.
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I guess we know how Fidel Castro beat cancer.
posted by Renoroc at 4:24 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Though the country is justly famous for cigars, rum, and baseball, it also has some of the best and most inventive biotech and medical research in the world. That’s especially notable for a country where the average worker earns $20 a month. Cuba spends a fraction of the money the US does on healthcare per individual; yet the average Cuban has a life expectancy on par with the average American.

That should change as soon as McDonalds and Monsanto gain a foothold on the island.
posted by spock at 5:23 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

But, but, it's free-market capitalism that drives the competition to create better drugs and treatment! Communist trick!
posted by Chitownfats at 8:22 PM on May 18, 2015

Free market capital drives the making of more expensive molecules.
posted by Oyéah at 9:52 PM on May 18, 2015

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