SYRACUSE Things looked bleak for Emma Brooke Whitehead.
The 6-year-old had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and the cancer looked terminal. Two years of chemotherapy had little effect. Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) estimated that she had a month to live.
Because of her unlikely chance for survival, Emma’s doctors decided to take a huge risk: They injected her with a genetically modified HIV stripped of its capacity to induce AIDS and modified to turn millions of Emma’s T-cells into so-called “serial killer cells” that would destroy the cells ravaging her body. The modified cells attached themselves to the cells possessing a cancer antigen called CD-19, which attach themselves to the lymphocytes in leukemia patients, and destroy those cells.
Eight months later, Emma appears to be cured.
“There is no danger of infection and there is no longer the HIV virus,” said researcher Dr. Stephen Grupp, a pediatric oncologist at CHOP. “She has no leukemia in her body for any test that we can do — even the most sensitive ones.”
Emma’s mother even said the girl now has the energy to play with her dog, go to school, even play soccer. Meanwhile, researchers say that they will continue to investigate whether modified HIV can be used to target and destroy other cancer antigens.
While Emma Whitehead’s is a particularly sensational case, researchers are making new discoveries every day in the treatment of pediatric cancer.
“There’s constantly research going on, not only to improve survival, but to improve quality of life,” said Dr. Karol Kerr, a pediatric oncologist and supervisor of the Children’s Oncology Group at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Additionally, a lot of the research focuses on decreasing the long-term side effects of treatment.”
The most advancements, Kerr said, have been made in the treatment of childhood leukemia and lymphoma.