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Cuba's cancer treatment progress attracted Chavez

Monday, February 04, 2013 | 10:27 AM    

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HAVANA, Cuba – Popular opinion holds that cancer-stricken Venezuela President Hugo Chavez chose to undergo medical treatment in Cuba based simply on his friendship with Fidel Castro and the high degree of privacy and security afforded in Havana.

However, the communist Caribbean state has made strides in cancer treatment and research that are the envy of countries many times the island’s size.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the government has made a major investment in biotechnology, with Cuban researchers and scientists making significant progress in their search for new cancer treatments and tools to improve diagnosis and prevention.

Caribbean360.com, A Caribbean Online newspaper has reported that in 2008, the Ministry of Health registered a first vaccine for therapeutic treatment of advanced lung cancer developed by the Havana-based Centre of Molecular Immunology (CIM), one of the biotechnology spearheads in Cuba that is focusing on cancer treatments and vaccines. A second vaccine against the same type of cancer was patented at the beginning of this year.

“Biotechnology is key to transforming cancer from a deadly disease into a chronic one,” says Dr Agustin Lage Davila, the General Director of CIM. 

“Our drugs make chemo and radiation therapies more effective and less toxic. This helps us to achieve our ultimate goal: a longer life and a better quality life for our patients.”

The centre has also developed the anti-cancer drug nimotuzumab to treat advanced tumours in such locations as the head, neck and brain.

Nimotuzumab is a “monoclonal antibody” that mimics human immune cells and binds to specific target molecules of cancer cells. It targets a protein that can cause uncontrolled cell division and growth. The drug is currently going through clinical trials in Japan and Europe.

The Cuban Government has remained constant in its political and financial support for biotechnology even in times of economic constraints. In the last 20 years it has invested around 1US$billion in research and development.

Today, the Cuban biotech industry holds around 1200 international patents and markets pharmaceutical products and vaccines in more than 50 countries. Exports are soaring and generate yearly revenues of several hundred million dollars.

“More than 90 new products are currently being investigated in more than 60 clinical trials. These numbers are expected to grow,” says Dr Jose Luis Di Fabio, the head of the WHO Country Office in Cuba.

“The tremendous benefit from this focus on health biotechnology is that it is producing more affordable drugs to tackle diseases that run rampant in low- and middle-income countries.”

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