Emily Whitehead has a secret weapon: “My T cells, which are part of my immune system, have been trained to fight and kill my cancer.”
She was only six years old when she became the first child to receive genetically modified T cells. The experimental treatment cured his leukemia, and the success of his case led to the development of all kinds of cell therapies. “I kind of felt like a superhero or something,” she laughed.
She was eventually treated at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But first, Emily had chemotherapy at her local hospital. Chemotherapy cures children with his type of leukemia 90% of the time. Emily relapsed, and after a second round she relapsed again.
“She had 22 months of chemotherapy,” said her mother, Kari Whitehead.
Her father, Tom Whitehead, added: “She had all the chemotherapy ready to go that they could administer to her cancer.”
Emily’s parents watched as these two rival forces – cancer and chemotherapy – attacked their daughter’s body. A dietitian by training, Kari studied medical research. Tom trusted his faith and his instincts.
“They wanted to give him a regimen of chemotherapy,” he recalls. “Kari had done some research and said, ‘You know, this could possibly destroy his kidneys. Then she will need a kidney transplant. My inner voice was screaming, ‘Don’t do this today.'”
The Whiteheads released their daughter from the hospital and drove two hours to Philadelphia. “We weren’t sure we were doing the right thing,” Tom said. “We were just trusting our instincts.”
“She had very, very deep medical issues,” said Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a leading cancer specialist and researcher at Columbia University in New York, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘The Emperor of All diseases: a biography of cancer”. .” Her latest book, “The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human” (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of our parent company, Paramount Global), highlights Emily’s case, between others.
“Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had a program to take these CAR-T cells and direct them against Emily’s cancer,” Mukherjee said.
The AT cell normally kills invaders, such as viruses. Chimeric antigen receptor T cells (or CAR-Ts) had been engineered 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 in huge numbers, and then they inject them back into Emily.”
Clinical trials had just started. Emily would be the first pediatric case.
“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh told Kari, “You’re used to reading studies on these therapies. But for this one, it had never been done.”
“No. I couldn’t find anything on it at all,” she replied.
At first, Emily was fine. But suddenly Tom said, “Just the most horrible things you could think of. The ventilator, you know, is pounding on her. It was pounding around the room shaking stuff in her lungs. And there’s actually blood coming out of her mouth. She had multiple organ failure. They were telling us, ‘Something very serious is going to happen soon. Do you want us to stop?” I said, ‘Don’t stop.'”
Mukherjee said: “What happened in Emily’s case is that there was so much cancer in her body that we build an amplifying signal, so the more they harpoon, the more they get angry, then they get angrier and angrier, and at a certain point your body can’t take that outburst anymore.”
“He’s hit by friendly fire,” Sanneh said.
“And that can be a death sentence.”
Mukherjee said one of Emily’s doctors had taken a chance on a drug that could stop this “outburst”.
Kari recalls, “They finally came in and said they had this drug they wanted to try. It had never been tried in this situation before. But they thought maybe it could make a difference. And within hours we started seeing changes where all of a sudden we thought, “Wait a minute. She seems to be doing better.”
“And it was literally nurses coming out, pulling other nurses in here, and we can hear them saying, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Tom said.
Kari said, “I couldn’t believe it, because what was the chance of it working?”
Emily woke up from a 14-day coma on her seventh birthday. And a few days later, Kari saw Tom staring at his phone: “And I thought that was bad news. I thought the doctor called and said maybe she had more cancer, maybe -maybe they had found a tumor. And he said, “They can’t find a single cancerous cell.”
Her story was made into a documentary, “Of Medicine and Miracles.”
Mukherjee said: “We learned from Emily’s case. We learned what to do, how to do it, and it’s tactile. Too much can be wrong. Too little can be wrong. Every element is faith, luck, and our reliance on patients.”
Sanneh asked, “People used to say we were living in the age of antibiotics, then we were living in the age of vaccines. Are we now living in the age of cell therapy?”
“We are just beginning to live in the era of cell therapy,” Mukherjee replied. “As we come in 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 live at a time when cells have become the unit of therapy.”
And Emily Whitehead is living her teenage life. She is now in her senior year of high school.
Sanneh asked, “Is it hard for you now to look at these images of you with no hair, in pain, in pain, undergoing these treatments?”
“It’s not difficult for me now,” she said. “I like watching these videos because they show how far we’ve come since.”
“Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be able to say to this little girl, ‘This story actually has a happy ending’?”
“I don’t even know what I would say to him today, how I could explain to him what has happened since. But honestly, my father was very optimistic. And I would probably tell him to listen to it!”
READ AN EXTRACT:
For more information:
- “The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner), in hardcover, eBook and audio format, available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
- Emily Whitehead Foundation
- “Praying for Emily: The Faith, Science, and Miracles that Saved Our Daughter” by Tom, Kari, and Emily Whitehead, with Danelle Morton (Worthy Books), in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats, available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound
- The documentary “Of Medicine and Miracles” will be screened on November 5 at the Center Film Festival at Rowland, Philipsburg, Pennsylvania.
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Publisher: Carol Ross.