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Breakthrough Cancer Therapies Offer Hope for Patients

SIX-YEAR-OLD EMILY Whitehead was, in the words of one of the doctors who treated her, “at death’s door.” In 2012, suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she had undergone 16 months of chemotherapy treatments, to no avail. So her parents enrolled her in a clinical trial of a new treatment option, called immunotherapy, designed to boost her own immune system to fight cancer. She was the first child ever to be put on the treatment, involving chimeric antigen receptor T cells. Here, T cells are taken from the patient’s own blood, genetically modified (or rewired), in the lab and given back to the patient, where they attack tumors by identifying and latching onto certain proteins the tumors are expressing.

This CAR-T treatment, at first, caused an overwhelming immune response known as a cytokine storm. The young girl had a temperature of 106 degrees for three days, and was on life support, according to Dr. Carl June, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a physician on her clinical team. “It was due to her tumor being blown away by the T-cells.” The team learned that the treatment had raised levels of an immune marker known as IL-6 to dangerous levels. By treating that, with an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat arthritis, she improved immediately, and left the hospital on her seventh birthday.