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The Curious Case of Emma Whitehead

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By Collin Myers, Technical Writer/Marketing Assistant

An amazing breakthrough in cancer treatment has occurred at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with the curious case of Emily “Emma??? Whitehead, a seven-year old girl who had been battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of blood cancer. After chemotherapy treatments failed to eradicate her cancer, Emma’s doctors – with the blessing of her parents – decided, with limited options available, to consider an alternative, cutting-edge treatment. 

Diagnosed with ALL at the age of 5, Emma was very close to losing her battle with cancer. One year later, chemotherapy had failed to put the cancer in permanent remission, and, desperate not to give up, her doctors decided to take a huge risk.   

Her doctors decided to use a disabled form of HIV to help reprogram Emma’s immune system to genetically wipe out the cancer cells in her body. Up until Emma’s breakthrough case, this type of treatment had never been attempted on any child or any other patient infected with ALL. In certain cancers, including ALL, a subset of cells can become leukemia. These are known as B cells. Another set of cells, called T cells, normally recognize and attack invading disease. All the abnormal leukemia cells go undetected by T cells. T cells were collected from Emma’s blood, reengineered in a lab (using a disabled form of HIV-1) to recognize and hone in on a protein called CD19 that is found only on the surface of B cells. When the reengineered cells are dripped back into the patient, they disperse throughout the body to find and kill cancerous B cells. Initial reactions often leave patients feeling very sick with a high fever, chills, and low blood pressure, but these are normally signs that the treatment is working.   

This innovative yet risky technique using HIV, a disease that normally ravages the human immune system, has conversely armed Emma’s immune system with the necessary capacity to combat cancer. At first the treatment nearly backfired, almost causing Emma’s health to further deteriorate, but seven months later she is 100% cancer free and still in complete remission. Now 7 years old, Emma’s hair has fully grown back and she has recently returned to school and started getting back into the swing of life as a normal seven year-old girl (according to her parents, her favorite school subjects are lunch and recess). 

Novartis, a major drug/pharma company, has already offered $20 million dollars toward constructing a major research center at the University of Pennsylvania with the long-term goal of bringing the treatment to the public. The biggest issue, as is often the case, is that these types of drugs are often very expensive and nearly impossible for people to afford long-term (Gleevec, a previous drug developed by Novartis in 2001, can cost around or over $5,000 per month). It is already estimated that the cost of producing reprogrammed T-cells would be about $20,000 per patient. Some medical insiders also believe that the newly realized method of reprogramming a patient’s immune system could be a stepping stone toward treating other tumors like prostrate and breast cancer. 

Still, despite Emma’s miraculous recovery, the T-cell treatment is still being tested and refined, with scientists struggling to answer the many questions that still linger following other less successful trials. Other patients have had remissions after only being treated once or twice, while some patients have had no reaction at all. Throughout the medical world, there is no legitimate talk of a possible cure for leukemia – not just yet – but with further research and innovation, scientists may be able to take major strides at developing improved treatments so that one day, in the not too distant future, the possibility of a cure for all cancers may very well become reality.