Emily Whitehead, 8, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Leukemia shortly after her fifth birthday. She underwent several rounds of chemotherapy treatment and suffered two relapses of the cancer. Emily's parents, Kari and Tom, say they felt like they were running out of options, and they were doubting the effectiveness other types of chemotherapy might have on Emily's disease, so they decided to get a second opinion in Philadelphia. The doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explained that Emily was a good candidate for a new clinical trial that aimed to use Emily's own immune system, specifically her T cells — a type of infection-killing white blood cell — to kill the cancer cells. The means by which the researchers planned to train the immune system to respond to the cancer cells, however, is what makes this new treatment truly innovative.
"What we've learned how to do is train the immune system to recognize and then kill tumor cells," says Dr. Carl H. June, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
The new treatment involves collecting T cells from the patient, which are then infected with a virus that will genetically change them so that they will then see and react against the leukemia cells. Which virus are they using? HIV.
"The virus has been engineered so that it can't cause disease anymore, but it still retains the ability to reprogram the immune system so that it will now attack cancer cells," Dr. June explains.
The modified immune cells, so-called "serial-killer cells," can kill more than a thousand different tumor cells. This new treatment could become the first gene therapy approved in the United States, and the first for cancer worldwide.
The Doctors surprise Emily with $2,000 worth of Legos from the Lego company, as well as four tickets to Legoland!
• Watch the full documentary about Emily Whitehead, Fire With Fire by Ross Kauffman, below!
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