By Meghan Henoumont
Emily Whitehead, only 6, was preparing to die. Emily was not like most other children, she had leukemia, and her chances of survival were slim. Her parents spent their days in her room at the hospital. Instead of cartoons, laughter and the endless parade of questions that is expected of children, the room was silent, save the beeps of the machines monitoring her heart beat. Life for the Whiteheads stood still. They lived in “a walking dream…” One they could not wake up from. They’d tried every treatment available, but none worked. The reality of Emily’s fate gave way to her parent’s desperation.
The Whiteheads read about an experiential treatment, called T-cell therapy which had sent two adults with the same cancer as Emily into complete remission. The treatment would involve injecting modified HIV cells into Emily’s T-cells then back into her body, a terrifying and dangerous option but a flash of hope. They asked their daughter, who’d undergone Chemotherapy in agony if she wanted to try it. Emily holding her favorite my little pony doll replied, “I want to live.” So began, the treatment that saved Emily’s life. One year later and Emily remains cancer free.
At the University of Pennsylvania a team of research scientists led by Professor Carl H. June have rocked the medical world with a new cancer treatment called T-cell therapy. June and his team have studied cancer, HIV and the immune system for decades. His breakthrough research on reactivating the immune system through the injection of modified once deadly viruses into the patients T-cells is proving that the cure for cancer may not only be near, but here.
What is T-cell therapy and how does it work?
The treatment trains the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Healthy T-cells, white blood cells that fight off infection, are extracted. Scientist then re-program the T-cells by injecting them with modified versions of the HIV virus. To be exact, the lentivirus, a family of viruses to which HIV belongs.
In the New England journal of medicine June explained that the HIV virus that enters the cancer patients body is, “…a disabled virus.” Meaning it cannot cause AIDS, “…it retains the one essential feature of HIV, which is the ability to insert new genes into cells.”
Dr. Stephan Grupp, the doctor who treated Emily, explains that this new gene “makes the cells go after cancer cells…we then put those cells back into the patient.” These cells multiply creating a microscopic army that fight dieses, literally seeking out and blowing up cancer cells.
How effective is T-cell therapy?
Pretty darn effective, but still in its infancy stage of development, in the last three years, twelve patients received the treatment; nine are in partial or full remission. The treatment is still in the experimental stages, meaning long-term side effects have yet to be studied. At $20,000 a treatment, it is a gamble since some patients’ immune system simply cannot handle the introduction of new cells. Experts caution that there still are trials underway to test its efficacy and safety.
While for the Whiteheads T-cell therapy has been a miracle, the treatment still has pitfalls that must be addressed before it becomes available to the public. Even so, the therapy is a walk down the correct path, one which leads to the cure for cancer in our lifetime.