Seven-year-old's own cells kill her cancer

December 11, 2012, 12:05 pm Hannah Delaney Yahoo!7

AIDS virus used to rewire girl's immune system and kill leukaemia cells.

Seven-year-old girl cured of leukaemia
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A seven-year-old girl's own cells cure her of leukaemia


The new therapy bio-engineered the American girl's T-cells to seek out and destroy acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common childhood leukaemia.

She was treated after she suffered two relapses from chemotherapy and no other viable options were available to her.

The little girl, Emma Whitehead, was the first child to have the experimental treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the first first sufferer of ALL to receive the treatment. She was one of twelve patients with advanced leukaemia to take part in the treatment program.

The treatment utilised a form of AIDS to reprogram her immune system to kill the leukaemia cells.

Ken Campbell, Clinical Information Officer at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said 'Treatments which modify the body’s own immune system to fight leukaemia have shown much promise in recent years,' he said.

He said that while larger clinical trials are needed the significance of the therapy is that "severe side-effects associated with this form of treatment seem to be greatly reduced when combined with other drugs".

The study differed from earlier trials by modifying T-cells to specifically target disease cells, particularly important for cancers like Emma's which can otherwise avoid detection by T-cells.

To treat Emma, doctors removed millions of her T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and inserted new genes that programmed the T-cells to seek and kill her cancer cells. To do this, they used a disabled form of HIV because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells.

These altered T-cells were then dripped back into Emily's veins to work their magic. Despite its great result, the treatment was aggressive and nearly killed Emma: she became very ill - unconscious and on a ventilator before doctors used a rheumatoid arthritis drug to combat the side-effects of the treatment.

Emma has since recovered and seven months later is in complete remission and back at school.

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