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Editorial: Pioneering outreach to Cuba paying off for Roswell Park and cancer patients

Buffalo was an important destination for cancer research and treatment even before Dr. Candace Johnson traveled to Cuba last year. Today, it is in the forefront as Roswell Park Cancer Institute launches the first American study of a potentially game-changing treatment developed by Cuban researchers.

The Food and Drug Administration recently granted the hospital the right to test a vaccine called CIMAvax-EGF. Unlike a vaccine that prevents illness, this one is designed to treat lung cancer. Roswell Park will offer the treatment to as many as 90 patients with advanced stages of the disease to determine the optimal dosage and its effectiveness compared with standard therapy for people not helped by other treatments.

“With this landmark clinical trial, Roswell Park, America’s first cancer center, becomes the first American institution to give CIMAvax to patients,” said Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the cancer hospital. “We’re the first center to get permission to sponsor the U.S. testing of any Cuban medical therapy to bring Cuban science to the United States.”

That, in itself, is a landmark development, and evidence of the wisdom first of reopening relations with Cuba and of the decision of Johnson, along with Gov.

Andrew M. Cuomo, to make an early visit there in April 2015. It has paid off with a partnership that could revolutionize cancer treatment, save lives and bolster both Buffalo and Roswell Park.

Revolutionary cancer treatment was surely among the last things on anyone’s mind when President Obama moved to end the long political estrangement between the United States and the communist-ruled island hardly 100 miles from Florida. After all, in the American imagination, Cuba was a backward place, still living somewhere in the 1950s.

Evidently not.

Chemotherapy, a standard cancer treatment, seeks to kill cancer cells. CIMAvax takes a different approach. Instead, it targets a protein that signals cells to grow.

The vaccine stimulates the immune system, leading the body to produce antibodies that stop the protein from attaching to cancer cells and, thus, signaling them to grow out of control.

A recent Cuban study found that late-stage lung cancer patients using the vaccine lived about three months longer than those who received standard care. What is more, Johnson said, their quality of life was improved since the vaccine is not as toxic as chemotherapy. There is additional potential, she said, for using the vaccine in earlier stages of cancer and with other types of cancer. “So, there is real hope here,” she said.

It’s not just cancer patients who will benefit, though they are the most important among them. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus will also rise in stature.

The campus’s reputation is not insignificant now, with the Gates Vascular Institute, the Conventus Center for Collaborative Medicine and others, including

Roswell Park, the only upstate hospital designated by the National Cancer Institute as a “comprehensive cancer center,” and one of only 41 across the nation. But as the national center for testing a unique and powerful new cancer treatment, its standing can only increase.

This remarkable development also shows the wisdom Cuomo demonstrated by backing off his insistence that Roswell Park wean itself off state funding altogether. State support has helped the hospital remain on the cutting edge of cancer research, which certainly helped it hammer out this agreement with Cuba.

It’s also hard not to see this as an outgrowth of Buffalo’s turnaround. Success breeds success, and with the developments at the Medical Campus, at Canalside, around Larkinville and elsewhere, the city is attracting interest and investment. This agreement will almost certainly help to maintain that momentum.

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