Emma Whitehead is a little 7 years old girl with shocking, but however successful story. In a year ago, she was close to fatal ending due to acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The common treatments didn’t cause the improvement that was needed, and the desperation forced Emma’s parents to include her in an experimental treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The treatment had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. This experiment used disabled forms of H.I.V. viruses to reprogram the patient’s T-lymphocytes (most known as T-cells) to kill the cancer cells.
This treatment is dangerous for the patient too – it almost killed Emma. However, it cured Emma and she is still in full remission, 7 months after the end of it. The experiment was developed at the University of Pennsylvania. D-r Carl June, leader of the research, said: “Our goal is to have a cure, but we can’t say that word”. He hopes the new treatment will eventually replace bone-marrow transplantation, an even more risky and expensive procedure that is now the last hope when other treatments fail in leukemia and related diseases.
The treatment consists of removing of millions of the patient’s T-cells (a type of white blood cell) and insertion of new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. The technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at inserting genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia.
The altered T-cells — called chimeric antigen receptor cells — are then dripped back into the patient’s veins, and if all goes well they multiply and start destroying the cancer.