Cuba offers ray of light in cancer battle

Cancer may have met its match, and the potential breakthrough may have far-reaching political ramifications, as well.

For the first time a U.S. company signed an agreement with a Cuban firm to develop and test anti-cancer drugs. The U.S. government broke with its long-standing trade embargo and gave a green light to California-based CancerVax to enter into a deal with Havana’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIMAB, SA).

CancerVax obtained exclusive rights to complete the development of “three product candidates” designed to halt the growth of malignant tumors related to lung, breast, prostate and ovarian cancers. Cuban President Fidel Castro was present at the July 15 signing.

CancerVax chief Dr. David Hale, who signed the deal in Havana, said, “There is a ray of light in the darkness of cancer.” He said patients are excited about the cooperative arrangement that could produce a cancer vaccine.

Dr. Agustín Lage Dávila, director of CIMAB, said dissatisfaction is a scientist’s natural state of being, and “what remains to be done is much more than what we have done so far.” He noted there is not a tradition of technology transfer from southern to northern countries, particularly in the case of Cuba and the U.S.

“It is no secret that there is a 40-plus year void of a total absence of economic cooperation, a situation for which we have never blamed the U.S. people, far less the scientists of that country,” he said.

U.S. cancer specialist Dr. Donald Morton, speaking via video said, the Cuban-created drugs, designed to stimulate the immune system against cancer, represent a “unique, unprecedented discovery.”

The Treasury Department, which oversees the U.S. embargo against Cuba, denied a cash exchange. Instead, CancerVax will trade food and medicine with Cuba, estimated at $2 million a year.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.