It’s a breakthrough in the fight against cancer: A 7-year-old girl who was dying from leukemia is in remission after doctors reprogrammed her immune system, using a form of the virus that causes AIDS, to kill the cancer.
The New York Times reports Emma Whitehead relapsed twice after chemotherapy and her doctors were running out of options. Last spring, doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia tried something that had never been done before on a child or in anyone with her type of leukemia.
They used a disabled form of HIV to alter Emma’s immune system so that it would kill the cancer cells. Doctors removed millions of her T-cells, inserted the new genes and then put them back into her intravenously, allowing the T-cells to multiply and start destroying the cancer.
Rebecca Gardner with Seattle Children’s Hospital says, up until now, that’s something doctors haven’t been able to do.
“Part of the reason that had been a problem is your immune system learns to recognize yourself so that it’s not continually attacking yourself. We had to overcome that basically and figure out a way to redirect your immune system so that it wasn’t foreign and bad and attacking your immune system.”
Seven months later, Emma is still in remission. Three adults with chronic leukemia who also went through the treatment are in complete remissions. Four others have improved. Several others didn’t fare as well.
Gardner says doctors in Seattle have also been spearheading similar research on immunotherapy. Just this week, doctors will be starting limited trials on patients in the Seattle through the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research.
“I think we’ve finally gotten to the precipice where we’ve figured out what we need to do to really make this an effective therapy,” says Gardner. “I think there is a lot of excitement and I think there will be a lot of exciting things in the field of immunotherapy.”
The Ben Towne Center was named after a 3-year-old Seattle boy who died from neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
His father, Jeff, says this is not just a giant step toward finding a cure. It could eventually provide an alternative from the traditional treatment of chemotherapy and radiation.
“This kind of technology not only has the potential to not just cure kids but cure them in such a way that they won’t be facing such an uphill battle for the rest of their lives in terms of the treatment that inflicted upon them.”
The Ben Towne Foundation has raised more than $1.3 million to fund the research that’s happening at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s
Dr. Gardner says this is all very promising but she cautions that it’s still in its very early stages.
“We don’t have enough information about the therapy to open it to a lot more patients. So, when we do our trials this week, it will be open to a small set of patients who don’t have any other options.”