Young girl's cancer cured by HIV?

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7-year-old Emily Whitehead had her cancer 'cured' by a new targeted immune therapy that uses a disabled form of HIV. Find out more about the new treatment that is making waves in the medical and pharmaceutical industry.

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Cancer – the big C. This disease has claimed the lives of millions and can affect every organ of an individual’s body. Good news is the medical community is making some headway in cancer research. According a The Straits Times report, Emily Whitehead, 7, is the only known child to have beaten back leukaemia after going into remission twice. Her secret? A new treatment that turned her own immune cells into targeted cancer killers.

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Famous for being ‘cured’
Whitehead who is part of a US clinical trial, has been in remission for 11 months and is the first paediatric patient showing visible signs of success. Her face is now synonymous with the treatment and its potential, so much so that she has become sort of a celebrity. Her mum, Kari Whitehead, described to AFP, “When we go to places where there are a lot of people, sometimes they want pictures with her, or sometimes just to touch her, so I think it gets a little overwhelming.”

Thankful for the little things
Emily though is thankful especially since she suffered two relapses from conventional treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer. She now tries to live very day fully, playing with her dog, write, read and explore the outdoors.

Learn more about Emily and her family here

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A new way forward?
The positive signs from Emily and other participants in the clinical trial have prompted the US researchers behind the method to expand their research for a next-generation cancer treatment that may require just one dose in a lifetime as opposed to the continuous doses and rounds of chemotherapy that is the norm now.

Not a ‘cure’…yet
Experts and doctors are wary of dubbing the treatment a ‘cure’ especially since cancer patients are only signed off as illness-free after being their remission passes the five year mark, yet this targeted immune therapy system is already creating buzz in the medical world. According to The Telegraph, researchers were really excited by the treatment which they hope could ultimately replace risky bone marrow transplants.

The treatment
According to Michael Kalos, part of the University of Pennsylvania team of researchers working on the medical project, the treatment works on the principle of taking a patient’s own white blood cells, called T cells, and genetically altering them to allow them to recognise and kill cancer cells.

Kalos told AFP that the concept is not new and “has been around for at least 50 years, and it has been tried in humans for about 20 years in different clinical trials, with limited success mostly because the T cells that were put into patients had a real hard time surviving in patients.”

HIV the key?
The difference this time is researchers have begun using a disabled form of HIV to serve as a vehicle for the gene that needs to enter the T cells to alter it, this ‘vehicle’ has allowed for the genetically modified T cells to survive in the body long enough to eradicate the cancer cells.

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Hopes for the future
The treatment could redefine the cancer treatment terrain especially since every patient would need his or her own specialised treatment as well as added antibody treatments to complement and boost their immune systems. Yet, the future is bright especially if the recent success continues. According to Kalos, a viable treatment could even be on the market within a few years.