A six-year-old Pennsylvania girl dying of leukemia underwent an experimental gene therapy treatment in which a disabled HIV virus was used to reprogram her immune system to attack cancer cells. The treatment conducted in April nearly killed young Emma Whitehead, But she eventually emerged cancer free and seven months later, the cancer is still in remission, according to a report in The New York Times.
Emma Whitehead, who had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, underwent the experimental procedure because the cancer had returned twice after underoing chemotherapy. Emma’s parents Kari and Tom Whitehead were desperately searching for treatments that might save life of their only child.
The experimental treatment was developed at the University of Pennsylvania which also is researching similar immunotherapy treatments for other cancers including mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos.
In August, the University of Pennsylvania and the drugmaker Novartis announced a $20 million agreement to bring forward the novel treatment that reprograms a patient’s immune system to kill cancer cells. The therapy involves removing a patient’s T-cells, the white blood cells that attack malignant cancer cells and re-engineering them.
The T-cells are exposed to a disabled form of the HIV virus, because it is very good at carrying genetic material. The new genes reprogram the T-cells to kill malignant cells. The reprogrammed T-cells are then dripped back into the patient’s body to multiply and attack cancer cells.
Medical researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and National Cancer Institute also are investigating similar immunotherapy treatments, but it remains experimental and used only on patients who have not responded to other cancer treatments.
Dr. Michel Sadelain, who conducts similar research at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, told The New York Times that T-cells are “living drugs” that remain in the body, unlike pills which are eliminated from the body.
Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Traditional treatments for mesothelioma include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. For more information, please check our New York Mesothelioma Resources page.