Is This How We’ll Cure Cancer?

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Matthew Harper

Thumbnail for 6057From: forbes.com

For 85% of kids with a terrible cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, chemotherapy is a cure–but not for Emily Whitehead. Diagnosed at 5, she suffered an infection from her first round of chemo and nearly lost her legs. Then the cancer came back; she was put into remission once more and scheduled for a bone marrow transplant. As she waited, the cancer returned yet again. There was nothing else to try.

Nothing except a crazy experimental treatment never before given to a child: Blood was taken out of 6-year-old Emily’s body, passed through a machine to remove her white cells and put back in. Then scientists at the University of Pennsylvania used a modified HIV virus to genetically reprogram those white cells so that they would attack her cancer, and reinjected them.

But the cells attacked her body, too. Within days Emily was so feverish she had to be hospitalized. Hallucinating, she asked her father, “Why is there a pond in my room?” She was sent to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. A doctor told her family that there was only a one-in-1,000 chance she would survive the night. Then the miracle breakthrough: Doctors gave Emily a rheumatoid arthritis drug that stopped the immune system storm–without protecting the cancer. Emily awoke on her 7th birthday and slowly recovered. A week later her bone marrow was checked. Emily’s father, an electrical lineman named Tom Whitehead, remembers getting the call from her doctor, Stephan Grupp: “It worked. She’s cancer free.”

She still is, two years later–taking piano lessons, wrestling with her dog and loving school, which she couldn’t attend while sick. “I’ve been an oncologist for 20 years,” says Grupp, “and I have never, ever seen anything like this.” Emily has become the poster child for a radical new treatment that Novartis , the third-biggest drug company on the Forbes Global 2000, is making one of the top priorities in its $9.9 billion research and development budget.