June 24, 2008 / 7:43 PM / 11 years ago

Cuba approves, makes available lung cancer vaccine

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban scientists said on Tuesday the first vaccine to extend lives of lung cancer patients has been approved by Cuban authorities for use and is available in the island’s hospitals.

The drug, CimaVax EGF, has been shown to increase survival rates on average four to five months and much longer in some patients, they said in a news conference at Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology.

In contrast to chemotherapy, the traditional treatment for lung cancer, they said CimaVax EGF has few side effects because it is a modified protein that attacks only cancer cells.

They said it was the first lung cancer vaccine to be approved anywhere in the world, although there are others currently being tested.

“It’s the first vaccine for lung cancer registered in the world,” said Gisela Gonzalez, who headed the development of the vaccine, begun in 1992.

The drug is in various stages of clinical trials in a number of other countries and is most likely to be approved next in Peru, where it could be publicly available by year’s end, Gonzalez said.

She said several private companies had been licensed to market the vaccine, but it will be produced in Cuba. Cost for the treatment had not yet been determined, Gonzalez said.

Other cancer vaccines under development elsewhere include one made by Antigenics Inc against melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and another made by Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc and licensed by drug giant Pfizer Inc that attacks glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and deadly type of brain tumor.

FOREIGNERS WELCOME

Tania Crombet, director of clinical investigations at Havana’s molecular immunology center, said people from outside Cuba can come to the island for treatment.

“It’s possible to provide this vaccine to any patient, because it’s available in Cuba, it’s approved by the Cuban drug agency so we can market the vaccine in Cuba and we can receive patients from outside,” she said.

The exception would probably be Americans, she said, who are restricted from Cuba travel by the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in place since 1962.

“Even though there is a new therapeutic tool approved in Cuba they probably wouldn’t be able to come to Cuba to receive it because of the embargo,” Crombet said.

The drug has been approved for clinical trial in the United States, but its possible use there is at least two to three years away, Gonzalez said.

Cuba’s state-run biotechnology sector includes around 50 research and development centers and is considered one of the most advanced in the developing world.

Editing by Michael Christie and Anthony Boadle

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