Her story has now become popular for opening up mutiple forms of T-cell treatments for other cancers in the medical community.
Cancer is a killer that is all-pervasive, and notorious for reluctantly letting go of its host. For Emily Whitehead, however, the treatment she received was a miracle in her life. Speaking to CBS News she mentioned, "My T-cells, part of my immune system, were trained to fight and kill my cancer." Now a senior in high school, Whitehead was an acute lymphoblastic leukemia patient when she was five years old in 2010. Since then, she had been in chemotherapy for multiple sessions before her parents intervened and sought a different form of treatment. She was initially cured, relapsed, and after the second round, relapsed again.
Emily Whitehead became the first child to receive genetically-modified T cell to treat her leukemia. Her story helped launch @EWhiteheadFdn and the field of cellular medicine, as told in a new book, #TheSongoftheCell by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, @DrSidMukherjee. pic.twitter.com/V8TK20p4oE— CBS Sunday Morning 🌞 (@CBSSunday) October 30, 2022
"She had 22 months of chemotherapy," said her mother, Kari Whitehead. "She had every off-the-shelf chemotherapy that they could throw at her cancer," her father, Tom Whitehead added. Kari used her experience in dietician research to look into the chemotherapy treatment she was getting. Tom mentioned, "They wanted to give her a regimen of chemotherapies." He recalled, "Kari had researched it and said, 'You know, that could possibly destroy her kidneys. Then she's gonna need a kidney transplant.' My inner voice was screaming, 'Don't do that today.'" Deeming this too dangerous, they took Emily to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to treat her further. This was definitely a leap of faith. "We weren't positive we were doing the right thing," said Tom. "We were just trusting our instincts."
Emily Whitehead has a secret weapon: "My T-cells, part of my immune system, were trained to fight and kill my cancer." https://t.co/7a9qzvzNuY— WJZ | CBS Baltimore (@wjz) October 31, 2022
"She was in very, very deep medical trouble," said Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a leading cancer specialist and researcher at Columbia University in New York, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. "The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia had a program to take these CAR-T cells and direct them against the cancer that Emily had," Mukherjee said. These T-cells need to be created specifically for every patient and each treatment costs about $20,000. An amount that is marginally less compared to the investment a bone marrow transplant requires, according to New York Times.
This morning, the Whitehead family was featured on @CBSSunday!— Emily Whitehead Foundation (@EWhiteheadFdn) October 30, 2022
The segment highlights both Emily and @DrSidMukherjee, who wrote the review printed on the cover of @prayingforemily & has a new book #TheSongoftheCell that is dedicated to Emily.
WATCH NOW: https://t.co/D7Asihlkjf pic.twitter.com/JkND1J2BAX
A T cell normally kills invaders, like viruses. Chimeric antigen receptor T (or CAR-T) cells had been modified in a lab to attack Emily's leukemia cells. "Now, this T cell has a little flag or a harpoon. And they grow them in the lab, they grow them to very large numbers, and then they infuse them back into Emily." Whitehead became the first pediatric patient in the trial. A move that has been alluding to a movement towards the cell therapy age. "Sunday Morning" contributor Kelefa Sanneh mentioned, "People used to say that we were living in the antibiotic age, and then that we were living in the vaccine age. Are we now living in the cell therapy age?"
1/2 A fantastic review of The Song of the Cell in the WSJ (possibly paywalled) https://t.co/TdYEjUM7RS— Siddhartha Mukherjee (@DrSidMukherjee) October 29, 2022
"We're just beginning to live in the cell therapy age," Mukherjee replied. "As we enter and manipulate more and more cells, cells in the cartilage, cells in the pancreas, to cure type 1 diabetes, potentially cells in the brain to cure depression and schizophrenia, we are living in an age where cells have become an amenable unit of therapy." The treatment, however, took a toll when Emily started getting a fever and coughing up blood. This "shake and bake" according to an oncologist Dr. Carl June, who leads the research team at the University of Pennsylvania, is a cytokine-release syndrome, or cytokine storm, referring to the natural chemicals that pour out of cells in the immune system as they are being activated, causing fevers and other symptoms.
Today, Emily is 10 years cancer free!— Emily Whitehead Foundation (@EWhiteheadFdn) May 10, 2022
With this important milestone reached, we can now also celebrate that Emily is CURED. https://t.co/Vodpc7n1qa#WeBelieve#ActivateTheCURE#10YearsofCART pic.twitter.com/UxDu3MwbV5
Whitehead was given a drug to cure it after having nothing to lose and her condition immediately started to get better. After a week, doctors declared her cancer-free. When asked about what she would tell her younger self if she knew then what she knew now, she said, "I don't even know what I would tell her today, how I could explain what's happened since then. But honestly, my dad was very optimistic. And I would probably tell her to listen to him!"
Cover Image Source: CBS News