Just to let you know, summer is my busy (read: psychopathically crazy insane busy) for me. Hence the lack of posts. I billed 61 hours over the last 7 days for a project I’m not even assigned to. Anyway, enough about me whining.
Let’s talk about something awesome. This is so awesome that it will make your hair stand up on the back of your neck and if you don’t shed a tear or two… well… you my not be human. This is a story about science. This is the bleeding edge of science. Where the last chance that a little girl has to live is to take the most dangerous disease known to man and… well… make it our bitch.
Emma Whitehead is a 7-year-old little girl and she shouldn’t be alive. When she was five, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Over the next two yeas she dealt with chemotherapy. I’ve seen chemotherapy in my stepdad. It’s not pleasant. This little girl went through it twice. She relapsed both times. When she was six, she was doomed. There was almost nothing else to try.
In comes Dr. Carl June (Children’s Hospital of Philidelphia). He’s trying to cure leukemia and he’s doing so in an amazing way.
In leukemia, a person’s B-cells, which are a normal part of the immune system, turns malignant. Now, the treatment that Dr. June has devised uses a genetically modified T-cell from the patient. The scientists take millions of T-cells from the patient. Then they have to get the new but of genetic code into those T-cells.
Hmm… what is really good at inserting genetic information into human T-cells. Oh yeah, the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV. But the doctors don’t want to give the patient AIDS, they just need the part that attaches to T-cells and injects a genetic code. They get rid of the rest and insert the code they want the in the T-cells.
Cry havoc and release the trojan horses. The HIV ‘infects’ the T-cells with the new code. The T-cells are then injected into the patient. And, if all goes well, the T-cells start dividing and killing the malignant B-cells.
The treatment almost killed Emma. Her temperature spiked to 105F, she had an immune reaction, her entire body was swollen and she was on a ventilator. She was dying quickly now.
A blood test gave the doctors a needed clue. A particular body regulation molecule called IL-6, a cytokine, had spiked a thousand fold. But the doctors knew of a drug that would lower that. With no other hope, they injected her with a compound used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Hours later, she was stable. A week later, on her 7th birthday, she woke up. The entire ICU staff sang “Happy Birthday”.
Now, just over a year later, she is leukemia free.
The treatment has been done several other times. Three adults have had full remissions. Four adults had a remission, but a relapse. Two adults died. Another child improved, but also relapsed.
It’s not a cure. It is a treatment that is less expensive (only $20k) and less painful than a bone marrow transplant, which is the normal treatment option. But hopefully the trick they learned with Emma will improve the success rate.
And the modified T-cells mean that all of the patient’s B-cells are hunted down and killed… not just malignant ones. So Emma will have to spend the rest of her life getting immune globulins to prevent her getting some illnesses.
But she’s alive and that’s what matters.
And it’s really cool that we’re using one of the most hated, feared diseases in the Earth’s pantheon to help us kill another one of the most feared and hated human diseases.
ADDENDUM: Just to be clear, the treatment does not inject HIV, modified or not, into the patient. I hope that it didn’t come across that way. Once the T-cells are modified by the virus, the T-cells (and only the T-cells) are injected back into the patient.