February 4, 2021
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Cuba joins the global community today in the commemoration of World Cancer Day, a disease that, according to the Pan American Health Organization, is the second leading cause of death in the Americas.
The Antillean nation’s contributions in the creation of drugs to treat this disease, which according to statistics cost the lives of 1.4 million people in 2020, while another four million were diagnosed, stand out.
One of the innovative Cuban drugs is HeberFERON, unique in the world, and also currently used in the action protocol against COVID-19 with very good results.
Doctor in Biological Sciences Irlado Bello Rivero, leader of this project at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), commented to the Cuban News Agency on the history and evolution of this important product.
He pointed out that in 1957 Human Interferon Alpha 2b and in 1961 Human Interferon Gamma were discovered for their antiviral properties, but it was not until 1981 when they appeared in the nation.
When their antitumor effects were proven in in-vitro cancer systems, the alpha 2b variant was among the first to be used in the world against practically all tumors, since it inhibits cell growth.
The senior researcher said that Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz was interested in this possibility of treating cancer and sent a group of experts to be trained on the subject and to deepen the technology for the development of interferons.
As a result, he explained, the Human Alpha Leukocyte Interferon, obtained for the first time in a natural way from white blood cells and leukocytes infected with a virus, began to be produced in the national territory.
He added that this formulation was also successfully used in the treatment of conjunctivitis and hemorrhagic dengue.
The Center for Biological Research was inaugurated, where this study was furthered; then the CIGB was created in 1986, and in the 90’s we were already producing Interferon alpha 2b and gamma interferon by recombinant means, he said.
Bello Rivero pointed out that clinical trials of the two products were carried out separately and they were registered in viral activities for almost any disease and type of cancer; their formulations also evolved and greater stability in the blood was achieved.
However, interferons did not have all the effects on cancer patients that were evidenced in vitro and other alternatives for the disease appeared, such as monoclonal antibodies and vaccines, he added.
The specialist commented that although this interest was waning in the world, in the archipelago there was a vast experience in their use and this was one of the few places where the two variants were produced.
Therefore, he continued, they were dedicated to combine them in a mixture, since it was known that together they generated a superior biological potency.
He emphasized that in 1998 they came up with these ideas and in 2005 they managed to define a new combination that allowed them to patent the product.
No one else has combined them in this way or managed to put them in the same bulb in a stable way, because they are very similar biologically but physically and chemically they are very different, he said.
He emphasized that they demonstrated the superiority of the new option over alpha and gamma interferons separately, through clinical trials in patients with basal cell carcinomas, the most frequent skin tumors with a high incidence worldwide.
The anti-tumor response was faster and more complete, he said, and this was also evident in advanced tumors that had not responded to previous treatments or surgery.
In 2008, the formulation was registered, not yet in its final version, which happened in 2016 already under the name HeberFERON for the treatment of basal cell skin cancer, especially in advanced patients and those at high risk of recurrence in the disease.
Bello Rivero reported that they began evaluating the drug in malignant brain tumors and in high-risk renal carcinomas after surgery, with very good results to date.
He specified that both studies are in Phase II, and the projections, when the COVID-19 pandemic allows it, are to register its use for these types of cancer.
According to the expert, HeberFERON has not yet crossed national borders, but the interest of other countries in the drug increases in the pandemic context.
Bello Rivero commented that it is remarkably effective in negativizing SARS-CoV-2 patients a few days after administering the first dose, even in those with viral persistence after 15 days.
He also pointed out that it influences the anti-inflammatory response, which contributes to reducing the number of patients seriously ill with the new coronavirus.
The website of the BioCubaFarma Business Group, to which the CIGB belongs, adds that the administration of this drug allows shortening the response windows against the viral infection without having to use lopinavir-ritonavir and chloroquine.
Researchers report that in the last decades, skin cancer has increased in the world. In Cuba some five thousand new cases are reported every year, with a tendency to increase, particularly basal cell carcinoma, although spinocellular carcinoma and melanoma are also present.
According to PAHO data, melanoma of the skin is among the most frequently diagnosed cancers among men.
The institution itself warned that if measures are not taken to prevent and control cancer, it is expected that the number of people who will be diagnosed will increase by 55 percent, which means approximately 6.23 million people by 2040 in the Americas region.
In addition, he emphasized that cancer patients have a higher risk of suffering from severe COVID-19, since they have a higher mortality rate due to an underlying condition.
In Cuba, attention to this health problem is a priority for the government and, consequently, for the sector’s authorities, with broad intersectoral and community participation, as well as comprehensive and integrated management between the different levels of care and sectors of society.
Recent information indicates that the use of HeberFERON has been extended throughout the country, with the opening of more sites for this purpose in the different municipalities.