A Cancer Drug's Long Journey From Cuba

ByABC News
November 5, 2004, 4:46 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2004 -- -- When the president of a small California biotech firm heard of a promising new treatment for lung cancer, he was intrigued.

"It stimulates a very strong immune response in patients," said David Hale, chief executive officer of CancerVax Corp.

There was just one hitch -- the drug, referred to as SAI-EGF -- is made in Cuba as part of Fidel Castro's $1 billion biotech program. Still, Hale was determined to bring the drug to the United States.

"I had no idea what an overwhelming task this was going to be," he said.

In early testing, SAI-EGF prolonged the lives of those with advanced lung cancer by as much as eight months. The drug triggers the body's own immune system to fight the tumor and slow its growth. Scientists hope it may also be effective in treating breast and other cancers.

Cuban scientists were willing to help Americans gain access to the drug.

"There is no reason why scientists here and there cannot cooperate," said Dr. Augustin Lage, director of the Center of Molecular Immunology in Havana, which developed the drug.

But for the drug to come to the United States, the State Department had to recommend that an exception be made to the 44-year-old U.S.-Cuban trade embargo. The Treasury Department later approved that request. The deal came together just as the Bush administration was getting tougher on Cuban trade.

"The Bush administration doesn't want to do anything to validate the [Cuban] revolution, whether it be public relations terms or financial terms, and that was the quandary with CancerVax," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

CancerVax hired lobbyists to build political support. Their pitch hit home with many. Among the top-level decision-makers at the State Department, two had recently lost relatives to lung cancer.

"A lot of the people that might normally be opposed to such a transaction actually were supportive of our efforts to bring the product into the U.S.," said Hale.

The U.S. government did not want the Cuban government to benefit from the sale of the drug. So instead of paying $6 million in cash for the drug, CancerVax was told to pay in food and medical supplies.

For Castro, the deal was the perfect opportunity to show the world that Cuba had something the United States wanted.

After years of effort, CancerVax hopes to begin clinical trials next year. If all goes well, and the drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it may be on the market by 2009.

ABC News' Lisa Stark filed this report for World News Tonight.