(CNN) — On what appears to be a residential street on the outskirts of Havana, the tan building with a guard gate seems out of place.
The building is the Centro de Immunologia Molecular, the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM), known locally as a thriving hub of biotechnology.
Sliding glass doors lead to a modern-looking lobby with a single receptionist desk, some furniture, and a timeline boasting the center’s achievements. A quote from Fidel Castro is emblazoned on the wall. This facility was his idea, after all — and Cuba would need it.
With much of the medical and pharmaceutical technology and treatments coming from the United States, Castro’s country wouldn’t have access to it due to an American embargo in place since the early 1960s. Cuba would have to make its own technologies and much of this has happened here, at the CIM.
In the building next to the lobby, researcher Camilo Rodriguez opens the door to a laboratory. Men and women are busy working inside, pipetting liquids into trays and putting tubes in whirling centrifuge machines. Since this place began operating in 1980, it has delivered some serious science. Rodriguez says Cuba has produced more than 70% of the medication needed in the country and produced their own vaccines for 21 different diseases.
According to the World Health Organization, the United States spends more than five times the amount per person on healthcare compared to Cuba, yet Cuba actually has a slightly better lifespan, on average, than the United States. People in Cuba live to an average of 80 years versus 79 years in the United States.
The island, the largest in the Caribbean, has a state-run health system. This is the only type allowed here. Much of the focus is on prevention; after all, it is typically much cheaper to prevent a disease than treat it. The care, including vaccines, is free.
But there is one vaccine, conceptualized and created here at CIM, which has caught the attention of several countries around the world, including the United States. A vaccine for lung cancer.
“Lung cancer is the third cause of disease by cancer here in Cuba,” Rodriguez says, sitting the in lab. “We have 4500 lung cancer patients each year. And in that same period of time, the same amount of patients die from this cause.”
Cancer, of any form, is the second leading cause of death in Cuba. Among men, the most common types of cancer seen are lung and prostate cancer. Lung cancer has become particularly prevalent in large part thanks to one of the country’s staples — tobacco. Or more specifically, cigars.
Orelve Alberto Sanchez Leal is 77 years old and was a smoker all his life, starting at age seven. He says he smoked as much as a box of cigars every day. In 2007, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“It was like a house fell on top of me,” Leal says. “It hit me really hard.”
After trying chemotherapy and radiation, his doctor had one more suggestion — a clinical trial for a vaccine that could help extend his life.
It is called CIMAvax, and while CIM calls it a vaccine, it is important to note the drug does not prevent disease like a traditional vaccine, at least in its current form. It instead keeps diagnosed tumors in check by inhibiting their growth, acting more as a treatment. This is known as a therapeutic vaccine.
Rather than target the cancer cells directly, the vaccine acts as a form of immunotherapy, harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer instead.
Other countries are participating in clinical trials for CIMAvax, including Japan and some in Europe. The United States is also interested. As the two countries continue to normalize relations after half a century of dispute, FDA clinical trials could start this year and will run in partnership with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.
A range of clinical trials have enabled the vaccine to be tested in 5000 patients worldwide, including 1000 in Cuba. In one small trial, patients younger than 60 lived on average 11 months longer than those who did not receive the vaccination.
But Orelve Leal is an exceptional case. It has been 9 years since he was diagnosed.
“That disease is a tough blow for anyone,” he says. “Because what one usually thinks when we are told that we have cancer is that you’re dead. However, I’m here.”
As he talks, his eyes are shiny with unshed tears. It is an emotional topic for him.
“I have to get emotional,” he says. “I have lived 9 years with his disease, and I don’t plan on dying from it.”
Samantha Bresnahan, CNN
August 2, 2016