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HEALTH > Girl’s cure signals new path against cancer

WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse

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Emily Whitehead has been in remission for11 months. AFP photo

Emily Whitehead has been in remission for11 months. AFP photo

Emily Whitehead, at age seven, is the only child to have beaten back leukemia with the help of a new treatment that turned her own immune cells into targeted cancer killers.

She has been in remission for 11 months and is the first pediatric patient in a growing US trial that is showing signs of success after decades of research and now includes three other children and dozens of adults.

For the most part though, Emily is happy to play with her dog, read, write and explore the outdoors, thanks to an experimental treatment that saved her life after two relapses left doctors admitting they had no other options.

Now, the US researchers behind the method are expanding their quest for a next-generation cancer treatment that may require one dose in a lifetime, and may one day end the use of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants.

While the word “cure” is something most experts would not whisper until a patient has lived at least five years illness-free, the field of research into targeted immune therapies is generating buzz.
Work at the University of Pennsylvania is supported by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which last year announced an exclusive global deal to license chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) technologies for leukemia and other cancers.

High-risk type

The case studies that describe Emily’s journey so far, and that of another 10-year-old girl who did not survive after trying the same adoptive T cell therapy, were detailed March 25 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Both girls suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer. It is often curable, but theirs was a high-risk type that resists conventional treatments.

The method takes a patient’s own white blood cells, called T cells, and genetically alters them to allow them to recognize and kill cancer cells, according to Michael Kalos, part of the University of Pennsylvania team of researchers working on the project.

If the recent success continues, a treatment could be on the market within a few years, Kalos said.

March/26/2013

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