CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — When six-year-old Emily Whitehead relapsed from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her family traveled from Philipsburg to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, searching for a miracle.
Despite doctors saying there was no hope, Emily is celebrating 10 years cancer-free. They found her miracle.
Emily was the first patient to pioneer CAR T-Cell therapy and ten years later, doctors are ready to call it her cure. While the therapy may not work for everyone, it has now been used on about 20,000 patients worldwide and is a game-changer, especially for blood cancers.
“Throughout my career, there have been three things you could do for cancer. You could take it out: surgery. You could radiate it: radiation therapy. Or you could give chemotherapy to try and control the disease,” said Dr. Stephan Grupp, Emily’s doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and director of Cancer Immunotherapy. “Now, we add a fourth pillar and that’s immunotherapy.”
Emily’s T-cells were taken and modified with a chimeric antigen receptor, or ‘CAR’, that targets the protein found on all cancer cells. The modified t-cells were infused back into her body over three days; however, the process start off smoothly.
“She got so sick that we didn’t think she was going to make it,” said Dr. Grupp.
Doctors noticed one count protein was higher than normal and gave her a drug to block it. Within hours, her condition improved and the modified T-cells destroyed her cancer.
“This was so exciting within the field of cancer therapy,” said Dr. Grupp. “Do I believe Emily is cured? Do I believe the other children who are 5, 6, 7, 8 years out from their therapy are cured? I believe they are.”
“To families or children who are in treatment right now, I always like to tell them that it is really important to never give up and to always keep believing in yourself,” said Emily. “In the words of my dad, to find something to smile about every day.”