It was devastating news. Despite two rounds of chemotherapy, 7-year-old Emily Whitehead’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a B-cell leukemia, had returned. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she and her parents met Dr. Stephen A. Grupp, director of Translational Research for the Center for Childhood Cancer Research. He suggested treating Emily with an experimental therapy using modified T cells to treat B-cell leukemia.

Dr. Carl June, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

In August 2011, University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine scientists, lead by Dr. Carl June, developed a new cancer and HIV treatment in which T cell therapy was used in adult patients. T cells are part of the body’s immune system, identifying and attacking most diseases. Cancer, however, can evade the notice of T cells; certain kinds of cancer, including leukemia, attack B cells. This treatment uses modified T cells that specifically target B cells and destroys them when they become cancerous.

Immune system T-cells (C) binding to beads that cause the cells to divide, then are later removed to leave pure T-cells, which are then ready for infusion to leukemia patients.

Emily’s treatment began on April 17, 2012. Initially, Emily became critically ill as the growing T cells in her body caused the extreme elevation of a protein found in rheumatoid arthritis. Her doctors, including Dr. Grupp, hurried to find a solution. They gave her a drug that limits the production of this protein and her condition dramatically improved, almost overnight.

Dr. Stephen Grupp lets Emily see the T-cells in action at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia laboratory

Emily Whitehead during a tour of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Three weeks after receiving the treatment, Emily was in remission. Six months later, her bone marrow still contained the cancer-fighting T cells. “I think Emily’s story shows how important it is to fund medical research,” said her mother, Kari Whitehead. “We need to provide funding to help other children like Emily. If it weren’t for this medical research, we wouldn’t be parents now.”

Emily recently completed the second grade, cancer-free. She is enjoying her summer vacation, spending her days playing soccer and walking her dog, Lucy.

This research is supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (K24 CA11787901, 1PN2-EY016586, and R01CA120409), the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (7000-02).

Images courtesy of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Kari Whitehead.