December 11th, 2012
02:57 PM ET

HIV helps put girl's leukemia in remission

An experimental treatment in which researchers reengineer a patient's own immune system to attack cancer cells seems to have worked in a 7-year old girl named Emma Whitehead. The acute lymphoblastic leukemia that almost claimed Whitehead's life is now in remission.

Whitehead received the treatment, called T-cell immunotherapy, in April. First doctors drew Whitehead's blood, separated out white blood cells called T-cells, and then, using a disabled AIDS virus to transmit genetic material, made the T-cells capable of identifying and attacking leukemia cells.

Finally, the genetically modified T-cells were transfused back into Whitehead, where they went to work wiping out her leukemia to below the level of detection, a process that can itself be deadly.

"This is just one example now of several examples where people can now use immune cells recognizing cancer to reject, and in some cases it's been well shown for 10 years now, that they can cure certain types of cancer with this approach," says Dr. James Yang, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

"This latest research is about one such retargeting. It's targeting a single molecule, CD-19, that's on certain types of cancers."

Whitehead is one of 12 patients to undergo T-cell immunotherapy for Leukemia at the University of Pennsylvania. Other patients have responded differently, or not at all, to the treatment.

Among them, another pediatric patient initially responded to the treatment, but relapsed one month later. When the leukemia came back, it no longer had the specific CD-19 receptor that doctors had engineered her T-cells to identify on leukemic cells.

"Very often, with acute leukemia when patients relapse, they relapse fairly quickly, and the longer that Emily and other patients go without a relapse, the better the chances the leukemia won't come back, but it is still early in the follow-up," says Dr. David Porter, one of the Penn researchers. Emily is Whitehead's given name, although her family calls her Emma.

"There's a great deal of energy and effort trying to identify other targets on leukemia cells for that situation, but also useful targets that could be on other cancers where you could apply this kind therapy," he said.

Other hospitals are trying similar therapies.

soundoff (761 Responses)
  1. timmy

    it would be nice if medical reporters can spread the word about home computers helping research. two nonprofit projects are 'world community grid' and 'folding at home'. we are all volunteers, so have a look and join us!

    December 11, 2012 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Stephen

    Isn't this how 'I Am Legend' began?

    December 11, 2012 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sarah Bowl


      December 11, 2012 at 17:48 | Report abuse |
    • I love robots.

      No, in I am Legend they used measles. Also, its just a movie.

      December 11, 2012 at 17:49 | Report abuse |
    • Janine

      I was thinking more like 'Resident Evil'

      December 11, 2012 at 18:01 | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    This was addressed in xkcd #938

    December 11, 2012 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Liz in Seattle

    I cannot believe how much press this tiny trial is getting (I also saw this story in the New York Times). These results are from ONE patient in a tiny Phase 1 trial and they don't even have 12 months of follow-up on her yet. It is irresponsible in the extreme to go trumpeting this therapy based on one patient's preliminary data, especially since it appears she wasn't even a typical patient (ie the others did not respond). People, you can take almost any trial and easily find one patient who makes the treatment look good. Take it from me (I run clinical oncology trials)– this story means NOTHING. Sad but true.

    December 11, 2012 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • dgieger

      oh. I'm sure it means NOTHING to Emily's family either...guess they should go ahead and plan her funeral. Are you that cynical with the patients in your trials?

      December 11, 2012 at 17:55 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      I think there are several things at work in this story,. I do agree with you,dgieger, that this is obviously a big deal to the family. As to why such a tiny study is gaining so much traction? I think throwing around the AIDS buzzwords gave the story more traction than it would have otherwise gotten.

      December 11, 2012 at 18:36 | Report abuse |
    • S.F.

      Excuse me Liz, but it will SOON be 12 months since she received this treatment. I have followed this little girl's story from the beginning and I can tell you, she is amazing! She has been a local story for over a year now, and it's just FINALLY getting national attention, so, just go with it and celebrate with us that there has been a step in the right direction in the fight against cancer! Em, keep fighting love! WE BELIEVE!

      December 11, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse |
    • Al

      I don't think many are going to get unrealistic hope from the article.

      December 11, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse |
    • Bassman123

      Unfortunately your right only 1 in 10 trials has any effect in a positive way on cancer research but at least the researchers are still swinging. Hopefully some significant progress will be made covering a vast percentage of malignant disease. I know because I'm still here due to combination of sis platinum, Aureomycin and bliomycin and veloban when i was diagnosed at 22 with testicular cancer, lymphoma involving my kidneys and urinal tract. That was 36 years ago!

      December 11, 2012 at 19:37 | Report abuse |
    • hmm

      Perhaps by publishing this story they were hoping to gather interest for funding for future trials?

      December 11, 2012 at 20:33 | Report abuse |
    • noway

      The bigger problem with how this is being reported is completely ignoring what Carl June's lab does – which is *how* the T Cells are modified. Replacing the TCR with a BCR makes them absurdly plastic and able to target virtually any epitope that we can find. This type of treatment won't be mainstream any time soon, but getting these first steps at personalized medicine is moving things along. DVD players used to cost $1000, now they cost $29 at Walmart. This treatment may cost $100,000 for a hospital to offer it now, but hopefully improving technology will drive its cost down as well.

      December 11, 2012 at 21:17 | Report abuse |
    • ReseachGirl

      I too agree with Liz. If you look at this from a biostatistical perspective, you don't have the data needed to say this works. Why is this tiny trial getting so much publicity? Is it because of the disabled HIV virus that was used? Are they hoping to get more funding through the advertising this article will provide? I'm sure it is big news for the family, however, from a research perspective, we don't have the data to say this treatment is statistically significant.

      December 11, 2012 at 22:19 | Report abuse |
    • pinky

      I agree that this single study with a small sample size does not point to a clear answer as to the utility of this particular treatment. However, when I read this article, the focus to me seemed to be more about a new general paradigm that is being investigated – specifically, using a virus to possibly impact the immune system which might in turn impact the progression of certain cancers. (I acknowledge that to those in the medical field, this paradigm may not be new at all, but to those of us not in that field, it is indeed an interesting concept – which may or may not ultimately prove useful.) I thought the article was clear in that the utility of this particular treatment is undetermined (i.e., "other pts have responded differently or not at all).

      December 11, 2012 at 22:24 | Report abuse |
    • Tera

      There are now over twelve people who have participated in this trial. Do your research.
      And for those of us who have not had any successful treatment, even ONE success story us exciting!

      July 15, 2015 at 01:07 | Report abuse |
  5. Justin

    "disabled AIDS virus"

    AIDS is a condition (syndrome) of HIV after certain factors are present and opportunistic diseased are present, there is no AIDS virus. HIV is the virus.

    December 11, 2012 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • blessedgeek


      December 11, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
  6. Ash Cloud

    I have to agree with dgieger. It may not mean anything in the larger scheme of things as most studies, but the child's family I am sure is very grateful.

    December 11, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • S.F.

      Oh, they are grateful! For every little breath; for every laugh they hear. Last year's holiday season was hell on them because she was so sick. This is a miraculous event in the lives of the Whiteheads and their giving back to the hospital that has helped this child recover. You can follow her story on Facebook. Look for "Prayers for Emily (Emma) Whitehead" and you will find them.

      December 11, 2012 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
  7. phenom

    This is how resident evil begins

    December 11, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Cliff

    Disabled AIDS virus? And who is still saying there is no cure for HIV/AIDS?

    December 11, 2012 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Athensguy

      Spoken like a true molecular biologist

      December 11, 2012 at 20:17 | Report abuse |
  9. axam axo sekamanya

    this proves once and for all that HIV was indeed a disease that was engineered biologically in a lab somewhere at sometime by the united states biological weapons division as a tool for future use. this is why its killing so many of us here in africa yet the victims of this disease live literally healthy and normal lives with the virus in the US!

    December 11, 2012 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Derp

      No, that would be your ancestors playing "house" with a tribe of chimps allowing the virus to jump species. +1 for backwoods bio-engineering. Stop blaming the U.S. It gets old.

      December 11, 2012 at 20:08 | Report abuse |
    • Athensguy

      Really? Did you they also use cold virus, as well as others to do the same, but on different conditions? So, cold is also created by a secret gov agency?

      December 11, 2012 at 20:21 | Report abuse |
    • noway

      LOL you need to get a clue. Nearly *all* gene therapy trials going forward now don't use lentiviral vectors, they use AAV. Was that also created in a government laboratory? Even though it is not at all pathogenic? Guess those government weapons makers aren't so good at what they do afterall.

      December 11, 2012 at 21:19 | Report abuse |
  10. S.F.

    Your time to shine has come! You were born a miracle and your recovery was a miracle. God has very special plans for your life! We have been honored to be praying for you as you and your family take this journey and we have seen God take something that was meant for death (HIV) and use it to bring back life! Remember, in our weakness God is strength! We continue to pray for you daily that those blasted blast cells stay away! WE BELIEVE!

    December 11, 2012 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Taylor

    Visti her facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/emilybrookewhitehead?fref=ts

    December 11, 2012 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jonathan

    Let the flood of ignorant comments began!

    December 11, 2012 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. bubbles

    I am so happy for this little girl and her family- finally a break through. I read that there were five in total received the same treatment and 2 have been cancer free for 2 years- there was no change in one and the other person was just recently injected. So if they can save 3 out of 5 people with this treatment we say keep going! I have been cancer free for 16 months and I pray everyday It won't come back!

    December 11, 2012 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. nunya

    For Me, this just confirms that HIV was genetically engineered. While I am happy that the little girl is in Remission, Why the heck cant they re- create a version of HIV that disables the virus in humans infected?

    December 11, 2012 at 22:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Hasai

    They used the AIDS virus as their delivery vehicle.
    This is the ultimate in irony.

    December 11, 2012 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. J. Valencia

    ...ok so now they're trying to sell you that HIV can cure cancer? how can you disable AIDS? you can disable the HIV virus but not the disease....I swear this sounds like a set up story or ignorant reporting – is Obama HIV+ or something?

    December 12, 2012 at 00:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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    December 12, 2012 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. kyndal frazier

    OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!i cant believe this i am at stephenson middle school and i have 3 articles to turn in and this article right here is just the one and it just happened yesterday at 2:57 pm that is unbelievable. i am sure gonna choose this one for one of my articles.

    December 12, 2012 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Amanda

    This treatment may not work for everyone, but it could save millions of people. Especially children, like this little girl. To the people who do not understand, they are taking the T-cells from the virus, NOT THE ACTUAL VIRUS, only a portion of it.

    December 13, 2012 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Nickeva

    How is the AIDS virus disabled yet we have no cure?! I'm perplexed!

    December 17, 2012 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. DB_B2B

    Click the link below to watch the short film that shares her story, and explores the experimental treatment that saved her life. The film is part of GE's Focus Forward Films series- 30 three minute stories about innovative people who are reshaping the world through act or invention. http://focusforwardfilms.com/films/72/fire-with-fire

    December 17, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DB_B2B


      December 17, 2012 at 13:29 | Report abuse |
  22. Obat tradisional Leukimia

    whether this therapy can provide treatment in total?Obat Tradisional Leukimia

    February 9, 2013 at 04:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Beatrice (Kenya)

    See the positive side of the story, a girl's life was saved.Amen!

    June 28, 2013 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. sandra kons

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  26. harriet ray

    please stop hate which is why U.S.is openly actively reaching for hate related to a positive cure.Never judge or comment unless one walk in that person shoes,for family my prayers are with plus my wish this is beginning for cancer patients,plus not only for the rich or insurance companies refused to endorsed this,to continue,Plus please tell me whom is medical surgeon of U.S.,Flordia is in need of data people are dying for lack treatment for ins. companies refused to pay for care or md will not accept ins.Flordia want Medicade money from government reused to treat patients whom have medicade

    June 3, 2015 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. david

    i am david
    I posting this comment for those who have HIV Aids and need cure, This is my story,
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    June 19, 2015 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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