In 2011, 7 year old Emily Whitehead's, acute lymphoblastic leukemia came roaring back and her parents, on the advice of her oncologist and a cancer specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, attempted a second intense chemotherapy for their child.
Emma is one of the 15 % of children that have this cancer that do not respond to chemotherapy. The other 85 % are cured after 2 years of chemo.
She failed the therapy. In April of 2012, Emma was enrolled as the first pediatric case in a clinical trial called CTL019. What she was a modified AIDS virus.
How CTL019 fka CART19 works.
This clinical trial, formerly referred to as CART19, uses immune cells taken from a patient's own blood, called T cells. These cells are genetically modified to express a protein which will recognize and bind to a target called CD19, which is found on cancerous B cells. Here is how CTL019 works:
1.The cancerous immune cell. B cells, which are found in the immune system, become cancerous in certain leukemias and lymphomas, such as ALL, NHL and CLL.
2.The healthy immune cell. T cells are the workhorses of the immune system, recognizing and attacking invading disease cells.
3.The problem. Cancerous B cells fly under the radar of immune surveillance, evading detection by T cells.
4.The solution. In this experimental treatment, T cells are collected from a patient, then reengineered in a lab to recognize and attach to a protein that is found only on the surface of B cells. After this reengineering, they are called chimeric antigen receptor T cells. The cells are put back into the patient where they disperse to find cancerous B cells.
5.The result. As the reengineered cells multiply in the body, they attach to and kill the rapidly dividing, cancerous B cells. They remain in the body long after to continue fighting any new cancerous B cells.
The modified HIV virus therapy worked for Emma
“Three weeks after receiving the treatment, she was in remission,” says Dr. Grupp. “Emily completely responded to her T cell therapy. We checked her bone marrow for the possibility of disease again at three months and six months out from her treatment, and she still has no disease whatsoever. The cancer-fighting T cells are still there in her body.”To be clear, live HIV was not injected into clinical trial patients. There are some who criticize the origination of the treatment, implying that HIV DNA was not part of this therapy. But it is what it is, the therapy is HIV based.
The clinical trial needs much more research to become a possible treatment for those children that have acute lymphoblastic leukemia . But for Emily, she has her life back.
HIV and cancer are a scourge. But we have learned so much about the immune system from HIV, that not only HIV patients have benefited but now doors may be opening for others with terminal cancers. Talk about turning a lemon into lemonade.