Cuba: The Surprise Medical Innovator

Little Cuba is a big player in medical innovation and treatment.

In the shadow of the world's largest, most expensive and most deadly medical industry is one of the most advanced and effective medical services that has been quietly saving lives and healing the sick for decades.

Lab technician at microscope

There is no question that Cuba is a developing country lacking many modern conveniences that far more developed nations have had for many years. Despite that, unlike the situation in the United States, life expectancy is high in Cuba and its citizens are understood to be among the healthiest in the world.

Part of the reason for this is that Cuba, again unlike the United States, considers medical care as a fundamental right. It also sees preventive medical care as a critical part of that care rather than a financial burden that insurance companies should find a way to minimize in order to be more profitable.

Besides this, Cuba’s central government has made it a priority to keep medical research and related scientific investments high, at least relative to the size of the government. It has also done so despite not having access to critical pharmaceuticals and equipment that might have made such research more efficient. Like those on many projects considered a priority and critical to all, the country’s medical professionals have found ways to work around such constraints. In Cuba’s case, that ingenuity, brilliance and persistence have produced four major innovations that many outside the country may not be aware of.

Cancer Vaccines, Anyone?

One of the dreams in the medical world for decades has been to come up with a vaccine that might provide a broad-based means of preventing cancer. Cuba’s medical teams at the Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana may have done just that with their CIMAvax-EGF vaccine.

This unique vaccine tracks how cancer cells are growing and acts as an active blocking agent in keeping the disease from spreading. It has gone through extensive drug trial evaluation not just in Cuba but also in Peru, Paraguay and Colombia. This particular version of the vaccine was crafted for lung cancer patients, and more than 5,000 have already been treated with it.

The vaccine also costs only $1 per dose to manufacture.

The good news about this particular creation is that U.S. drug trials, long since blocked under embargoes, appear to be going forward at full speed. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the first clinical trials for the drug after active lobbying by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The institute will also be involved in the trials.

Besides CIMAvax-EGF, the CIM also has two other cancer medications the world may want to take note of.The first vaccine, VSSP, is a drug originally designed to boost the body’s immune response to existing vaccines. While that in itself was extremely important as a breakthrough, further tests have revealed that VSSP can help stimulate the body’s own defense responses to actual cancer cells. It may therefore turn out to be a very important alternate cancer treatment. It is now in the earliest stages of clinical trials.

The other vaccine is Racotumomab, a drug that targets one specific molecule found on all cancer cells. If successful, it could be used to help fight solid tumors such as breast, prostate, colon, lung and even some blood cancer tumors. It is currently in the second phase of clinical trials.

A fourth potential anti-cancer pharmaceutical developed by Cuban researchers is Vidatox. It was derived from the venom of a blue scorpion by a company by the name of Labiofam. Although still in the very early stages of evaluation, it already looks promising in helping to treat certain types of cancer.

Reversing Diabetic Foot Ulcers

One of the most dangerous complications from patients with uncontrolled diabetes is the potential loss of toes, feet or whole legs to amputation. Because diabetes causes blood vessel and nerve damage in the foot, patients can develop foot ulcers, causing the all-too-common red sores that can sometimes penetrate bone. Gangrene often results, with amputation being one of the few effective treatments – so far – to prevent further spreading of the ulcers.

Researchers from the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Cuba, operating under the direction of BioCubaFarma, have come up with a potential treatment that could avoid all of this. The drug in question, Herberprot-P, stimulates the skin’s own natural healing processes for both neuropathic and ischemic ulcers. When the drug is injected near the gangrene-affected areas, tissue has been seen to heal and diseased areas to clear out within about three months.

Herberprot-P also has a well-established track record. It has already been used in 26 different countries on more than 165,000 patients.

Blocking the Transmission of HIV and Syphilis from Mother to Child

Despite extensive work in the same research field around the globe, Cuba has the distinction of being the first country to find a means to keep both HIV and syphilis in mothers from being transmitted to their unborn children.The solution is a systemic one rather than just one “magic bullet.” It includes early prenatal care access, testing with respect to HIV and syphilis on both parents when a woman becomes pregnant, aggressive treatment of HIV with antiretroviral drugs, similarly intense treatment to deal with syphilis in the mother and tracking of any potential for further infection of the unborn child.

The results are so significant that the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, called them “one of the greatest public health achievements possible.” It may also help to put an end to the continuing cycle of the spread of AIDS in other developing countries such as those in Africa, where unprotected sex has led to extremely high percentages of infection in newborns.

Amazing Results in Eye Care

Another important area for those looking into what Cuba has done with its medical programs involves its research and track record in dealing with serious eye care problems.

The country has long been a leader in treating existing eye problems such as cataracts, retinitis pigmentosa and glaucoma. There are currently more than 25 centers in Cuba focused on treatments for these illnesses and for the application of preventive protocols to keep them from becoming bigger problems in the future.

One of the larger centers for such eye care research is the Instituto Cubano de Oftalmología Ramón Pando Ferrer (Cuban Institute of Ophthalmology). It has an extensive background in the areas of corneal and refractive surgery, diagnosis and management of clinical conditions there, advanced corneal treatments and excimer laser corneal refractive surgery.

An important milestone in Cuba’s history in this discipline involves a joint operation that Cuba and Venezuela partnered on starting in July 2004. By working closely on diagnostic techniques and the application of often simple eye surgeries, Cuban medical professionals were able to provide significantly improved and/or restored vision to between 2.2 and 3.4 million individuals in the area. The program has been so successful that it has been mirrored in the form of special ophthalmological treatment centers plus 55 surgical centers. These have been deployed in 31 countries, in Latin America and the Caribbean for the most part, and are now spreading out into Africa and Asia. They have all been built on the Cuban model, which has been so successful since its beginning in 2004.

Time for the World to Pay Attention

Cuba’s expertise and innovative approaches to medical research and medical treatments are setting standards that even the biggest and most well-funded universities and pharmaceutical corporations have not been able to match. It is about time the United States opened up much closer medical cooperation agreements with Cuba. It is also about time the world as a whole paid far more attention to what Cuba is doing in the medical community and how this might inform models for targeted treatments as well as universal health care everywhere.