A 7-year-old US girl suffering from an aggressive form of childhood leukemia was cured by her own re-engineered immune cells. According to Medical News Today, after the treatment the doctors found no remaining trace of cancer.

Emily Whitehead was the first child patient to take part in a clinical trial called CTL019 led by Stephan A Grupp, the pediatric oncologist of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The trial tests T cell therapy’s ability to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia and other B cell cancers.


7-year-old, cured from leukemia by own immune cells


Emily had already relapsed twice after following a standard chemotherapy treatment for leukemia when she was integrated in the clinical trial program. During the trial she received a custom-designed version of her own T cells which multiplied extremely fast and destroyed the leukemia cells.

Grupp is also the director of Translational Research for the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at CHOP and a professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Him and his team presented the trial’s results at the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting, which was held in Atlanta in December this year.

During the trial the researchers took immune T cells from each patient’s blood samples and genetically modified them in order to express a protein that binds to a target called CD19, which is a protein found on the surface of B cells, a type of white blood cell that can degenerate and become cancerous in certain cases of leukemia and lymphomas. The T cells are the immune system’s “workhorses” who are in charge of recognizing and attacking invading disease cells.

After being re-engineered, the T cells were put back in the patient’s blood stream where they are supposed to dissipate and search for the cancerous B cells. They manage to multiply at such an increased rate that they are able to overcome the rate the cancerous cells divide at and kill them. Furthermore, the modified T cells remain in the body and continue to fight any new cancerous B cells that might develop in time.

So far the trial had 12 subjects, 10 adults suffering from chronic lymphocytic leukemia and 2 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The researchers are happy with the early results of the trial and consider them to show great promise. The T cells survived in the patient’s body for months after being reintroduced in the blood stream and have disposed of large quantities of B cells in 9 of the 12 patients.

The next step in the trials is enlisting a larger number of patients, both adults and children, to test whether the same results persist when facing a larger scale.