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Teen Given Just Weeks To Live Is Declared Cancer-Free 10 Years After Groundbreaking New Therapy

Teen Given Just Weeks To Live Is Declared Cancer-Free 10 Years After Groundbreaking New Therapy

Emily Whitehead was just five years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

A teenager who was given just weeks to live has been declared cancer-free 10 years after being given a groundbreaking new therapy

Emily Whitehead, 17, was just five years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – relapsing twice before the cancer became resistant to treatment. 

Emily Whitehead was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was just five years old.
Emily Whitehead Foundation

Determined not to give up, her parents Tom and Kari decided to try an experimental new treatment they’d heard about called CAR T-cell therapy, which involves collecting T-cells – a type of white blood cell – and genetically reprogramming them to recognise and attack cancer cells, infusing the modified cells back into the blood. 

After being enrolled in a clinical trial, Emily became the first paediatric patient in the world to receive CAR T-cell therapy. While there were many risks involved, the gamble ultimately paid off and the treatment worked. 

Speaking to People mum Kari said: “It wasn't a hard decision for us at all.” 

Tom added: "The alternative was to go home on hospice and just watch her die." 

Emily with parents Kari and Tom.
Emily Whitehead Foundation

In May 2012, 23 days after Emily started treatment, a bone marrow test showed her cancer was all gone. 

And after turning 17 in May, she was declared cured of cancer. 

"It was a total shock after everything we she'd been through," Kari said. 

In 2015, the family set up the Emily Whitehead Foundation to help raise awareness about such cancer treatments, and to provide support to others dealing with childhood cancer. 

Emily has now be declared cured of cancer.
Emily Whitehead Foundation

They have also featured in a new documentary, Of Medicine and Miracles, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, while Emily’s parents have written a book called Praying for Emily: The Faith, Science and Miracles that Saved Our Daughter

"Spreading awareness about treatments like CAR T-cell is really important to me," Emily said. 

"It's a miracle I'm alive – and I am so grateful." 

Dr. Stephan Grupp, director of the Susan S. and Stephen P. Kelly Center for Cancer Immunotherapy and Emily's doctor – who also features in the documentary – said Emily was 'not expected to make it'.

"And then suddenly all of the cancer was gone," he said, explaining how there are a number of different approaches 'to getting the body's immune system to directly engage and kill the cancer', but that CAR T-cell therapy is the 'most powerful and direct way'.

Since Emily became the first paediatric CAR T-cell patient, more than 15,000 people with blood cancer around the world have successfully received the same treatment. 

Grupp added: "You could argue this is a brand-new field of medicine. Now, we just have to find the right recipe to treat all types of cancer."

Featured Image Credit: Emily Whitehead Foundation

Topics: US News, Health