Dr. Candace Johnson, CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, couldn’t have sounded more excited Wednesday when announcing encouraging news about an experimental cancer drug that now produces an historic joint venture with Cuban researchers.
“We did it!” she said to big applause in the cancer hospital’s auditorium. “We really did it!”
With Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo looking on, Johnson said a 2015 exploratory mission to Cuba involving Roswell Park and state officials resulted in studies showing a Cuban immunotherapy drug that treats lung cancer – CIMAvax-EGF – is safe, well tolerated and worthy of further study. Only because of the outreach to Cuban researchers and state involvement, she said, was Roswell Park able to announce the news before a packed house of local officials and hospital employees.
“It all started with the trade mission and now we’ve come full circle here today,” Johnson said, outlining the new partnership between Roswell Park and Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology.
And Cuomo envisions expanded opportunities for Roswell Park as well as new associated companies and jobs in Buffalo.
“I believe Roswell is going to make history and be in the forefront of slaying this dreaded beast called cancer,” the governor said.
“And I believe that Roswell and this development is going to lead to great things,” he added. “I believe it will lead to great enhancement and expansion of Roswell. I think it will help Buffalo with more jobs and more companies and more economic energy.”
On only his third visit to Buffalo since November and the first since April in which he took questions, Cuomo returned to familiar themes as he enters the general election portion of his re-election effort. Speaking later to reporters, he never mentioned Marc Molinaro, his Republican opponent. But he emphasized progress Western New York has noted over the last seven-plus years of his administration.
After Molinaro criticized the governor’s comments earlier this week about upstaters remaining after others previously moved to other states, and that those relocating to Florida are simply seeking warmer weather, Cuomo did not waver in his rebuttal.
“The economy is coming back. That is inarguable,” he said. “There are still facts in life.”
He pointed to rising home values in Buffalo and said the exodus of young people from the region over the last 40 years has eased.
“That was a long, frightening, depressing period of time,” he said. "We’ve seen an increase in millennials moving in. That is also undeniable.”
But Molinaro, as recently as Tuesday in Lancaster, blasted Cuomo for failing to recognize the exodus of more than 1 million people over the past few years. He blamed the outmigration on the state’s high taxes and lack of jobs, especially upstate.
Molinaro has also criticized Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion plan and its $750 million investment in the Tesla solar panel plant in South Buffalo. Molinaro says the state’s job projections have fallen short, though administration officials point out the company has met its initial job projections.
“Tesla has created hundreds and hundreds of jobs that did not exist,” Cuomo said. “After 50 years of nothingness, literally on the grave site of the steel industry, rises the solar industry.
“I believe we are behind on the projections,” he added, “but the fact is Buffalo is home to a new industry.”
The topic is sure to be fodder for any debates between Cuomo and Molinaro in the coming weeks, though the governor could shed no light Wednesday on whether they will occur.
“I don’t know,” he told reporters. “It’s still an open question.”
But even with Election Day approaching, Cuomo held overt campaigning to a minimum, even while highlighting the state’s role in the 2015 Cuban mission that set the stage for Wednesday’s news about the cancer drug.
Following the 2015 trade mission, Roswell Park became the first medical institution to initiate FDA-authorized testing of CIMAvax in the United States. Phase I results were presented Tuesday at a scientific conference in Toronto. Further experiments are slated for later this year.
Researchers note that in Cuba, many patients treated with CIMAvax have lived significantly longer with improved quality of life and minimal side effects, compared to lung cancer patients who did not receive the drug in combination with standard chemotherapy. Roswell Park researchers believe that CIMAvax may also prove effective as a treatment for other cancers.
Johnson, joining Cuomo with reporters after the auditorium event, explained the new results show that an “axis” on tumors requires a growth factor identified in the clinical trials.
“What if a person could be immunized against that growth factor?” she said. “No growth factor; no cancer. And it worked.
“Right now, this [joint venture] will enable us to bring these drugs and put them in patients,” she added, explaining that Cuban officials are anxious for the imprimatur of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“If we show promising results the FDA may say it’s OK; they may not,” she said. “But we will do our best.”