NOVA “CUBA’S CANCER HOPE”
Premieres Wednesday, April 1, 2020 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS
-- Innovative Cancer Vaccine Offers New Hope for Patients—But an International Embargo Stands in the Way --
—One in three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. It kills an estimated 600,000 people a year in the U.S. and is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. New, lifesaving immunotherapy drugs can be very effective, but also very costly, and FDA approval can take years. Some Americans are taking matters into their own hands—defying the U.S. embargo to seek treatment in Cuba, where doctors have developed promising cancer vaccines. Lung cancer patient George Keays has made the trip multiple times and knows it could be a matter of life and death. “I’m not looking to break the law,” he says, “but I’m also not going to die.”
How did Cuba, a small nation cut off from modern medical technology, become a world player in cancer science? Could these new treatments actually transform some cancers from a death sentence into a chronic condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure? And can scientists in Cuba and the U.S. overcome political obstacles and work together to make such treatments more widely available?
In “CUBA’S CANCER HOPE,” NOVA, a production of WGBH Boston, examines the story behind Cuba’s ingenious cancer vaccines, introduces the researchers responsible for this unexpected science, and follows a historic international partnership that could make groundbreaking cancer treatments more accessible. The one-hour special premieres Wednesday, April 1, 2020 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming
“Cancer presents daunting challenges—for patients and for researchers—especially in an economically isolated country like Cuba. But those challenges are inspiring some incredibly creative solutions,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “This film tells a story of medical innovation that’s completely unknown to most people in the U.S., and at the same time does what NOVA does best, illuminating and demystifying complex science.”
NOVA traces the success of Cuba’s immunotherapy back 60 years to the time of the Cuban Revolution. When Fidel Castro installed himself as authoritarian leader in 1959, medical science was at the heart of his vision. He promised free health care, and immediately invested in creating a modern medical infrastructure for his people. When the U.S. trade embargo left Cuba isolated from medical resources in the early 1960s, Castro was forced to get creative, developing a self-sustaining medical sector to manufacture its own medicine for Cuba’s public health service.
Today, Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana is one of 30-plus high-tech biopharma research centers on the island, holding over two thousand patents for drugs and processes in use around the world. However, the trade embargo makes these treatments unavailable in the U.S.
But now, American patients could be on their way to gaining access to Cuban cancer treatments legally. In 2016, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center of Buffalo, New York became the first American research center to sponsor a clinical trial with a Cuban-made drug, marking a historic, first-time collaboration between Cuban and American scientists. CIMAvax-EGF—a potential breakthrough lung cancer vaccine developed at Cuba’s CIM—is already being used to treat thousands of patients in Cuba and other countries. Dr. Augustin Lage, founding director of CIM, is very aware of the importance of such collaborations. “In science, cooperation is everything,” says Lage. “So if you are isolated, you are dead in science.”
NOVA not only examines how Cuba overcame enormous obstacles to develop such advances in immunotherapy treatments, but also explores the fascinating rise of immunotherapy science—from a practice some medical textbooks once labeled akin to “witchcraft” to an approach that is rapidly becoming the standard care for cancer treatment.
In addition to scientists and researchers, viewers hear from a chorus of diverse Americans who describe how cancer has changed their world, their own lives, and the lives of those they love. Their experiences—painful, sad, surprising, shocking—provide emotional insights into the disease’s almost endless challenges.
NOVA meets patients Marta Raymos of Havana and George Keays of Boulder, Colorado, both of whom have depended for years on Cuban immunology science to keep them alive. The film follows 67-year old Keays from his home in Boulder to Havana’s La Pradera Hospital where he fills his prescription for Vaxira, another Cuban cancer vaccine. George has inoperable stage-four lung cancer. His original prognosis gave him only a few months to live. Now, nearly four years later, George is convinced Vaxira has helped keep him alive. It’s been a difficult journey, but he’s also a tough-minded optimist. “You go from being very healthy,” he says, “and suddenly, well, you have six months to live.” He knows the U.S. embargo outlaws medical treatment in Havana for American citizens. George pays $12,000 for a year’s treatment of Vaxira. Similar immunotherapy treatment in the United States can cost $12,000 per month.
Two years after the FDA approved the clinical trial of CIMAvax-EGF, CIM and Roswell Park made history again, announcing the first-ever biotech joint venture between the United States and Cuba. The two agreed to build a new biotech facility in Cuba dedicated to cancer drugs, jointly owned by Roswell Park and CIM. Still, the embargo will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for the partnership, demonstrated by the difficulties faced in simply shipping CIMAvax-EGF safely from Havana to Buffalo. Overcoming these types of challenges will be critical for the partnership to succeed.
“If we work together to raise the quality of life of our peoples, that will bring us together,” says Dr. Kelvin Lee, Jacobs Family Chair in Immunology and Senior Vice President for Basic Science at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Science is going to move relationships forward. The promise of lifting the burden of cancer in all peoples is going to move the relationship forward.”
“Cuba’s Cancer Hope” is a NOVA production by Bluespark Collaborative, LLC for WGBH Boston. Written and directed by Llewellyn Smith. Produced by Kelly Thomson. Co-Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.
National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.
NOVA is the most popular primetime science series on American television, demystifying the scientific and technological concepts that shape and define our lives, our planet, and our universe. The PBS series is also one of the most widely distributed science programs around the world, and is a multimedia, multiplatform brand reaching more than 55 million Americans every year on TV and online. NOVA’s important and inspiring stories of human ingenuity, exploration, and the quest for knowledge are regularly recognized with the industry’s most prestigious awards. As part of its mission to make the scientific enterprise accessible to all, NOVA is committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all its work, from the production process to the range of stories we tell and voices we feature. In addition, science educators across the country rely on NOVA for resources used in the classroom as well as in museums, libraries, and after-school programs. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston; more information can be found at pbs.org/nova, or by following NOVA on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
PBS, with nearly 350 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches nearly 100 million people through television and nearly 28 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’ broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’ premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV – including a new 24/7 channel, online at pbskids.org, via an array of mobile apps and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook or through our apps for mobile and connected devices. Specific program information and updates for press are available at pbs.org/pressroom or by following PBS Pressroom on Twitter.
WGBH Boston is America’s pre-eminent public broadcaster and the largest producer of PBS content for TV and the web, including Frontline, Nova, American Experience, Masterpiece, Antiques Roadshow, Arthur, Curious George and more than a dozen other primetime, lifestyle, and children’s series. WGBH also is a major supplier of programming for public radio, and oversees Public Radio International (PRI). As a leader in educational multimedia for the classroom, WGBH supplies content to PBS LearningMedia, a national broadband service for teachers and students. WGBH also is a pioneer in technologies and services that make media accessible to those with hearing or visual impairments. WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors. More info at www.wgbh.org.