By Sola Ogundipe
Year 2012 was replete with an array of medical and scientific breakthroughs. From January through December, series of world-changing innovations were recorded across the world. However, one of the biggest and most sensational breakthroughs of the year involved Emily Whitehead, a 7-year-old girl, whose acute leukaemia (blood cancer) was effectively “cured” by HIV.
Emily who had been battling the potentially fatal lymphoblastic leukaemia since May 2010, recovered dramatically after the HIV-procured antidote proved that scientists can successfully use HIV to kill cancer.
After series of chemotherapy failed to work, Emily underwent a new experimental gene therapy pioneered by the University of Pennsylvania to eradicate blood cancers.
The procedure involved “tricking” Emily’s immune system into fighting the cancer
In the experimental treatment, a disabled form of HIV was used to essentially rewrite her T-cells to be programmed to attack B-cells, which become malignant when suffering from leukaemia.
Researchers say the therapy is personalized using each patient’s immune system’s “T cells.”
Three weeks after the infusion in April, Emily was completely free of the leukaemia that had been on the verge of killing her.
Reports say she is recovering well at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Today, in the war against cancer, Emily is at the forefront.
The therapy, culminating 20 years of research, involves genetically engineering T cells – the immune system’s big guns – to attack B cells, the blood component that turns malignant in chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Although T cell therapy can have catastrophic side effects,doctors say it pointed the way to an antidote or the deadly blood cancer.
But the novel therapy that has tamed terminal leukaemia in seven of the first 10 patients might be deemed too risky for further testing. There are concerns that interfering with the immune system is too risky.
Of the 10, only two patients have not gotten better on the T cell therapy, even though all had stopped responding to conventional treatments.
Four patients have had a complete response – their leukaemia was eradicated – with the longest so far lasting 28 months. In four other patients, leukemia diminished dramatically.
The research team, led by gene-therapy pioneer Carl June, is optimistic about the outcomes of the study which have been so stunning the world has noticed.