In Pennsylvania, a six-year-old girl was dying from leukemia. Last April, she underwent an experimental gene therapy treatment in which disabled HIV virus was used to reprogram her immune system, causing it to target and attack cancer cells. While the treatment nearly killed the little girl, she eventually came out of it free of cancer. Seven months later, Emma is still in remission.
Emma Whitehead had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Twice she underwent chemotherapy, but to no avail. Her parents were desperately seeking a new treatment that may save the life of their only child.
This experimental treatment was developed at a cancer center at the University of Pennsylvania, where researchers are also working with similar immunotherapy approaches to treat mesothelioma.
In August, University of Pennsylvania and the drug maker Novartis announced that they had reached a $20 million agreement to precipitate novel immunotherapy treatments for cancer. In immunotherapy, a patient’s T-cells are removed and re-engineered, then put back into the body. These are the cells that attack malignant cancer cells.
In Emma’s case, T-cells were exposed to a disabled form of the HIV virus. This virus was chosen because it is a strong carrier of genetic material. New genes then reprogrammed the T-cells to target and kill malignant cancer cells, and the T-cells were dripped back into Emma’s body
Similar cancer treatments are under investigation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and National Cancer Institute, but these immunotherapy treatments remain experimental and are so far reserved for cancer patients who have not responded well to traditional cancer treatments.