How an experimental treatment beat a little girl’s cancer

Emily Whitehead has a secret weapon: “My T-cells, part of my immune system, were trained to fight and kill my cancer.”

She was solely six when she turned the primary youngster ever to obtain genetically-modified T cells. The experimental treatment cured her leukemia, and the success of her case has allowed every kind of mobile therapies to be developed. “Kind of made me feel like a superhero or something,” she laughed.

She was handled at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, ultimately. But first, Emily had chemotherapy at her native hospital. Chemotherapy cures children together with her sort of leukemia 90% of the time. Emily relapsed, and after a second spherical, she relapsed once more. 

“She had 22 months of chemotherapy,” stated her mom, Kari Whitehead.

Emily Whitehead as a leukemia affected person. 

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Her father, Tom Whitehead added, “She had every off-the-shelf chemotherapy that they could throw at her cancer.”

Emily’s dad and mom watched as these two rival forces – cancer and chemotherapy – attacked their daughter’s physique. Trained as a dietician, Kari studied the medical analysis. Tom relied on his religion, and his intestine. 

“They wanted to give her a regimen of chemotherapies,” he recalled. “Kari had researched it and said, ‘You know, that could possibly destroy her kidneys. Then she’s gonna need a kidney transplant.’ My inner voice was screaming, ‘Don’t do that today.'”

The Whiteheads checked their daughter out of the hospital and drove two hours to Philadelphia.  “We weren’t positive we were doing the right thing,” stated Tom. “We were just trusting our instincts.”

“She was in very, very deep medical trouble,” stated Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a main cancer specialist and researcher at Columbia University in New York, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” His newest e-book, “The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human” (printed by Simon & Schuster, a division of our dad or mum company, Paramount Global), highlights Emily’s case, amongst others. 

“The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had a program to take these CAR-T cells and direct them against the cancer that Emily had,” Mukherjee stated.

A T cell usually kills invaders, like viruses. Chimeric antigen receptor T (or CAR-T) cells had been modified in a lab to assault Emily’s leukemia cells. “Now, this T cell has a little flag or a harpoon. And they grow them in the lab, they grow them to very large numbers, and then they infuse them back into Emily.”

Genetically-modified Chimeric antigen receptor T (or CAR-T) cells are used to assault cancer. 

CBS News

The scientific testing had simply began. Emily could be the primary pediatric case. 

“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh stated to Kari, “You’re used to reading studies about these therapies. But for this one, it had never been done.”

“No. I couldn’t find really anything on it at all,” she replied.

At first, Emily was doing effectively. But all of a sudden, Tom stated, “Just the most horrific things you can ever think of.  The ventilator’s, you know, pounding on her. It would thump in the room to shake stuff loose in her lungs. And there’s actually blood coming out of her mouth.  She was having multi-organ failure. They were saying to us, ‘Something really bad’s gonna happen soon. Do you want us to stop?’ I said, ‘Don’t stop.'”

Mukherjee stated, “What happened in Emily’s case is that there was so much cancer in her body that we build in an amplification signal, so that the more they harpoon, the more angry they get, so there they are, getting angrier and angrier and angrier, and at a certain point of time your body can’t tolerate this angry rampage.”

“It’s getting hit by friendly fire,” Sanneh stated.

“And it can be a death sentence.”


Mukherjee stated that certainly one of Emily’s medical doctors took a likelihood on a drug that may cease this “rampage.”

Kari recalled: “They finally came in and said that they had this medicine that they wanted to try. It hadn’t been tried in this situation before. But they thought that maybe it could make a difference. And within a couple of hours, we started to see changes where all of a sudden, we thought, ‘Wait a minute. She seems to be getting better.'”

“And it was literally nurses going out, pulling other nurses in here, and we can hear them saying, ‘This is unbelievable. Never have seen anything like this,'” stated Tom.

Kari stated, “I couldn’t believe it, because what was the chance that this was gonna work?”

Emily woke from a 14-day coma on her seventh birthday. And a few days later, Kari noticed Tom gazing his telephone: “And I thought that it was bad news. I thought that the doctor had called him to say maybe she had more cancer, maybe they found a tumor. And he said, ‘They cannot find one cancer cell.'”

Her story has been became a documentary, “Of Medicine and Miracles.”

Mukherjee stated, “We learned from Emily’s case. We learned what to do, how to do it, and it’s touch-and-go. Too much can be wrong. Too little can be wrong. Every piece of it is faith, luck, and our dependence on patients.”

Sanneh requested, “People used to say that we were living in the antibiotic age, and then that we were living in the vaccine age. Are we now living in the cell therapy age?”

“We’re just beginning to live in the cell therapy age,” Mukherjee replied. “As we enter and manipulate more and more cells, cells in the cartilage, cells in the pancreas, to cure type 1 diabetes, potentially cells in the brain to cure depression and schizophrenia, we are living in an age where cells have become an amenable unit of therapy.”

And Emily Whitehead resides her teenage life. She’s now in her senior year of highschool.

Emily Whitehead is now 10 years cancer-free.

CBS News

Sanneh requested, “Is it hard for you now to watch that footage of you with no hair, in pain, suffering, going through these treatments?”

“It’s not hard for me now,” she stated. “I kind of enjoy watching those videos because it shows how far that I’ve come since then.”

“Do you ever imagine what it would be like to have been able to tell that little girl, ‘This story actually has a happy ending’?”

“I don’t even know what I would tell her today, how I could explain what’s happened since then. But honestly, my dad was very optimistic. And I would probably tell her to listen to him!”

READ AN EXCERPT: “The Song of the Cell” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

For extra information:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Carol Ross.

See additionally: 

A historical past of cancer


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