PBS’ ‘Nova’ goes to Cuba to examine its vaccines for cancer

PBS science series probes treatments currently illegal in America

Llewellyn Smith

For some people, a personal health crisis means going wherever a potential solution exists … even if it means defying their own government to do so.

“Cuba’s Cancer Hope,” a new episode of the seminal PBS science series “NOVA” airing Wednesday, April 1 (check local listings), traces the determination of several Americans to cross international lines to seek treatment for their illness in another country where vaccines for cancer fall under a trade embargo by America — so they technically are breaking the law. The hour-long program profiles the researchers who developed the drugs while explaining how Cuba became an unlikely player in leading the charge against the disease, dating back to the reign of Fidel Castro.

PBS chief Paula Kerger suggested the story as a “NOVA” project, and writer-producer-director Llewellyn Smith says he then was surprised to learn that “there’s an extraordinary biopharma industry that Cuba has developed and has been actually fairly active (with) in the world for well over 20 years. Most of us really don’t have access to that, because it would be illegal for us to go to Cuba for treatment. There’s an impression we have of Cuba as being fairly backward technologically, sort of immature, but the rest of the world is very much aware of Cuban science and very respectful of that.”

One American who has pursued treatment in Cuba is George Keays, a former telecom executive featured in the “NOVA” report. “I wouldn’t say I went on a wing and a prayer,” he reflects. “I did some research, but I went and was evaluated. Since the time I have been on the vaccine, it seems like the proliferation of disease in my body has slowed dramatically.

“I’ve had things go on” health-wise, Keays allows, “but at least for me, this vaccine has allowed me to deal with the metastasis and other things — with chemotherapy, with radiation — whereas at this point in lung cancer, there’s usually such an explosion of disease in the body that I feel very lucky to have been able to find Cuba and find a vaccine.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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