Emma Whitehead, with her mother, Kari last spring — Photo credit Jeff Swensen for The New York Times


After relapsing twice when chemotherapy treatment failed, 6-year-old Emma Whitehead was near death from acute lymphoblastic leukemia she had battled with since the age of 5.

With no viable cure in sight, her parents turned to an experimental treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a desperate attempt to save Emma’s life. The treatment had never before been used on anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had and it had certainly not been tried in a child.

“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.” the New York Times reported.

Although the experimental treatment nearly killed the 6-year-old — she was ultimately found to be cancer-free and Emma still remains in complete remission seven months later. Emma’s own immune system was given the lasting ability to fight cancer.

As many as three adults treated at the University of Pennsylvania who also battled with chronic leukemia have been reported to have complete remissions after the treatment, with no further signs of the disease. According to Dr. David Porter, two of the patients have been well for more than two years now.

“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. Dr. June hopes that one day the new treatment will eventually replace bone-marrow transplantation.

Cancer experts not connected with the research see tremendous promise since the early testing has worked so well in treating seemingly hopeless cases.

“I think this is a major breakthrough,” said Dr. Ivan Borrello, a cancer expert and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Drugmaker Novartis Pharmaceuticals, has already committed $20 million to the Pennsylvania team to build a research center on the university’s campus with hopes of eventually bringing the treatment to market.

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