Sitting in a hospital room in central Pennsylvania last February, Tom and Kari Whitehead seemed remarkably calm as a doctor told them that their 6-year-old daughter, Emma, had relapsed for the second time since she'd been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia 20 months earlier. Although 85 percent of kids with this most common form of childhood cancer are cured with traditional chemotherapy, even a grueling, high-dose version was no longer reducing the number of Emma's cancer cells. "The doctor said her organs were going to shut down, and he had no other treatments to offer her," recalls Tom.
But the Whiteheads weren't ready to give up. Instead of heading home for hospice care, the family traveled that day to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where oncologist Stephan Grupp, M.D., Ph.D., had pioneered a new leukemia treatment. Emma was the first child to try it. Doctors removed infection-fighting T cells from her body, programmed them in the lab to attack leukemia cells, and then returned the T cells to her six weeks later.
It wasn't smooth sailing. Emma spiked a high fever and quickly got much sicker. When she became unable to breathe on her own, doctors gave her steroids to strengthen her lungs, even though the medicine could also kill off her cancer-fighting T cells. But the steroids helped little, if at all. Meanwhile, the lab staff worked around-the-clock to find a clue in Emma's blood: They noticed a high level of an inflammatory protein and reasoned that another medicine used to treat rheumatoid arthritis might help. Their hunch was right; Emma's fever dropped and she rapidly improved. Everyone prayed that her energized T cells would still be able to work.
Three weeks later, tests showed that there wasn't a single cancer cell in Emma's bone marrow. "Ever since I learned that Emma had cancer, it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, and I was unable to breathe," says Tom. "That day, the elephant stood up and walked away. I could eat. I could sleep. I even took Kari on a date." Seven months later, Emma now shows no signs of cancer. Assures Dr. Grupp: "If the cancer tries to return, those T cells should be ready to pounce."
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.
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