Emma Whitehead, portrayed at center in the family’s picture on Facebook, had little chance to survive from leukemia. Chemotherapy was failing, and last year there were two relapses despite chemotherapy. The parents, after running out of known options, took her for a treatment that had never before been tried on anyone with the kind of leukemia Emma had.
The experiment, done at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia used a sterilized form of the AIDS-causing virus to bring changes to Emma’s immune system, so that it started to kill the cancer cells. While the treatment had the chance to kill her, she emerged victorious and cancer-free. Seven months after the treatment, there has been no relapse of leukemia, and she is running about like any normal child.
Emma’s cure is one of the first instances of genetically reprogramming a child’s immune system so that it learns to kill cancer cells selectively while leaving normal body cells intact.
NY Times reported that she is among a dozen patients with advanced leukemia who have received the new treatment developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Three adults, who have received the treatment have also been completely cured of leukemia with no relapses. However, the treatment has not been uniformly successful in all patients.
The Pennsylvania researchers announced the news during their presentations on Sunday and Monday at a meeting of the American Society of Hematology in Atlanta. Even with mixed results, physicians are excited, and think this is a major breakthrough.
For the treatment, Doctors treat millions of a particular type of white blood cells, called T-cells, and insert new genes into them. The disabled AIDS virus are used to insert the new genes into the T-cells. The genetically treated T-cells then seek out and kill malignant cells within the body.