a cure for cancer? -- 5/22/19

Today's selection -- from A Cure Within by Neil Canavan. In 2010, a young girl named Emily Whitehead who had terminal leukemia was treated using a radical new method pioneered by Dr. Carl June. Her T-cells were extracted, genetically reengineered to attack her leukemia tumor, and then reinserted into her blood. It was one of the first such uses of this treatment, and the first use ever on a child:

"In 2010, at the age of five, Emily Whitehead was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She was treated with chemotherapy but relapsed twice, at which point her parents were informed that their little girl had run out of approved treatment options.

"Enter Dr. Stephan Grupp, the attending physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Carl June. Together, as part of a clinical trial, they treated Emily with the experimental CD 19 CAR [the biological mechanism used in the treatment]. Although Emily was the first child to be treated with this new technology and a child's response to such treatment was entirely unknown, there was no choice. 'If a kid with ALL has already relapsed after transplant, or if they can't get a transplant, they die,' says June, and they die more rapidly than [chronic lymphocytic leukemia] patients, like [earlier adult patient Bill] Ludwig. 'There's actually a higher unmet medical need in ALL.'

Emily Whitehead and President Obama

"In April of 2010, Emily's treatment with the CD 19 CAR resulted in a whopping immune response: She developed severe cytokine release syndrome (CRS) [a condition whereby the immune system essentially tries to fight fire with fire, using high fevers and every other extreme tactic at its disposal in an over-the-top response and provoked a severe adverse reaction in Emily]. Because of Bill Ludwig's experience, June knew what they were dealing with. ... June knew about tocilizumab -- the newly approved drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis -- a drug that targets IL-6. June suggested to Grupp that he try it, and Grupp immediately agreed. They gave tocilizumab to Emily and within an hour, she woke up. She was fine and, as was discovered shortly thereafter, cancer-free.

"As of this writing in August of 2017, Emily Whitehead is alive and well. If you search her name in Google images, you will find a lovely picture of Emily taken just after she had a nice chat with the President of the United States, Ba­rack Hussein Obama. Emily had to miss school that day, so the president wrote a brief note to the teacher to explain her absence:

"'Please excuse Emily from school -- she was with me!'"


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author:

Neil Canavan

title:

A Cure Within

publisher:

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

date:

Copyright 2018 by Neil Canavan

pages:

168-169
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