Girl With Leukemia Saved by Strand of HIV

Emma with her mom. Photo via Jeff Swenson/NYTimes

It is hard to believe that Emma Whitehead is bouncing around the house, practicing somersaults and jumps that cause her parents to worry. Last Spring, doctors were struggling to keep her alive in a battle with leukemia. With no where left to turn, Emma's parents put their faith in an experimental treatment done by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It had never been performed on a child before, or on anyone with the type of leukemia that Emma had.

According to The New York Times article by Denise Grady, the treatment nearly killed her before it brought life back into her body. The experiment, in April, used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells. It appears the treatment has worked: seven months later, and Emma is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer.

Emma had been sick with acute lymphoblastic leukemia since 2010, when she was 5, said her parents, Kari and Tom. She is their only child.

She is among just a dozen patients with advanced leukemia to have received the experimental treatment, which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Similar approaches are also being tried at other centers, including the National Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“Our goal is to have a cure, but we can’t say that word,” said Dr. Carl June, who leads the research team at the University of Pennsylvania. He hopes the new treatment will eventually replace bone-marrow transplantation, an even more arduous, risky and expensive procedure that is now the last hope when other treatments fail in leukemia and related diseases.


Story by Denise Grady, photos by Jeff Swenson

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