Modified Form of HIV Helps Seven Year-Old Fight Leukemia

Category: Technology / Dec 12, 2012 9:59AM EDT
Seven year-old Emma Whitehead was near death from leukemia last spring, now her doctors say an experimental treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is credited with saving her life. The experimental treatment called T-cell immunotherapy, used a disabled form of the HIV virus to reprogram Emma's immune system genetically to eliminate the cancer cells. Emma's oncologist Doctor Stephan Grubb said the lymphoblastic leukemia that almost took Emma's life is now completely in remission. "About three weeks after we gave her her T-cells we did another bone marrow test. This young lady had not be in a remission for a number of months and she now was in a complete remission so she completely responded to her T-cell therapy. Since that time she's left the hospital. She's gone home," Grubb said. Emma is the first child and person with that type of leukemia to receive the experimental treatment. With Emma cancer free seven months after the treatment the her parents said the risk of taking part in an experimental was worthwhile. "You know Cart-19 was really the only option left for Emily and although we weren't sure how it was going to work because she was the first child we still felt that by enrolling her in the trial, even if it didn't work it would give them a little bit more information and from that hopefully they would learn something and be able to help other children," Kari Whitehead said. "You know we entered her into the trial really hopeful. We just had a lot of hope and from the very beginning we just we really had a good feeling about it. It was our last option and so all along we said all it just has to work, it has to work for Emily and it did." The treatment gives the person's immune system the ability to fight cancer, something Doctor Stephan Grubb said was a piece that was missing for a long time. "We have really reached a point where the technology has just gotten to being able to treat patients successfully. The engineering of the T-cells is at a point where we can actually create T-cells the way we want them. We can grow T-cells in a way that they can actually go into a patient and continue to grow within the patient and produce the immune response to destroy the cancer which is so incredibly important. That's really the missing piece -- that's been the missing piece for a long time," Grubb said. Emma is among a dozen patients that have received the experimental treatment developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Grubb hopes that the treatment would be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and become available at other hospitals.