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'Cuba's Cancer Hope' Asks: Is There Progress in the Battle Against This Disease?
April 1, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

With the U.S. health system under a microscope at the moment because of the coronavirus, PBS is offering a relevant reminder that no one health system anywhere in the world has a monopoly on care.

Cuba's Cancer Hope, which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS' Nova (check local listings), looks at how that small, impoverished island nation is taking different and potentially noteworthy avenues in cancer treatment.

Specifically, Cuban doctors and researchers have been using a vaccine, not approved for use in the U.S., to treat advanced cancers.

Focusing on half a dozen patients, some of whom have flown to Cuba from the U.S. to try this treatment, Cuba's Cancer Hope reports some encouraging results.

It is not, repeat, not reporting clean and widespread miracle cures. It does report the cases of American George Keay and Cuban Marta Reymo, both of whom were diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and both of whom have outlived the time frame normally projected for those with that diagnosis.

Keay seems to be the prototypical case, in that his cancer has not been cured or eradicated. The hope, explain the doctors and researchers who have developed this approach, is that cancer can be downscaled to something more like diabetes – a condition that can be managed.

Like many cancer treatments, this protocol is at an early stage. Doctors don't understand why it seems to work well on some patients and not on others, a central question that joins the many other questions to which cancer researchers around the world are seeking answers.

The fact that part of the treatment seems to have helped some patients, however, is seen as a good sign, and it is consistent with the pattern by which other cancer treatments over the years have been developed, tested, refined, and ultimately made more effective.

Beyond explaining and following the treatment itself, this Nova also devotes considerable time to the question of how this all happened in Cuba, a nation with limited resources and limited access to contemporary technology because of the long-standing embargo on products from the U.S.

The answer, Nova suggests, is that the embargo "forced Cuba to become more creative." Sen. Bernie Sanders may have been blasted for suggesting there were positive elements to Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, but this Nova argues that there were.

That included a commitment for public health, access to which Castro called perhaps the most important fundamental human right. Cuba has been training researchers and doctors for more than half a century, with the understanding that they may, at times, have to think outside the box due to limited resources.

Thus the impetus to pursue avenues like vaccines, several of which are illegal in the U.S.

If that sounds like rogue medicine, the Roswell Park cancer center in Buffalo, N.Y. doesn't think so. It has a joint working agreement with Cuba for doctors and researchers to collaborate on developing cancer treatments.

The partnership has its challenges. It's hard to get some of the Cuban vaccines and other materials into the U.S., and the embargo makes it hard to get some U.S. technology to Cuba.

But both sides are happy with the partnership, saying it has already yielded positive results that could bode well for future cancer treatment.

Cuba's Cancer Hope works hard to sidestep the politics of the embargo and U.S.-Cuba relations, which thawed under Barack Obama and have refrozen under Donald Trump.

It focuses on the medical issues, and in that area, it holds up Cuba as one more place where the long, slow, agonizing battle to understand and tame cancer seems to be showing progress.

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I recall years ago my son doing his Grade School "Foreign County' report on Cuba.
To my surprise, it was so close, and we knew so little about it!!
I distinctly recall Ballet and Medicine being major successes. Not only their own native Doctors, they trained, and deployed doctors to many, many 3rd World countries..to the World's benefit!
Apr 1, 2020   |  Reply
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