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Science with Dan: Immunotherapy could brighten outlook for cancer treatment

To anyone that has ever tripped and scraped an arm or a knee, it is beyond clear that our bodies are fragile and can easily fall victim to a vast number of dangers. For anyone that has ever known someone that has undergone aggressive cancer treatment, allowing dangers of an entirely different kind to enter and tear apart one’s body is often the only option.

Chemotherapy and radiation has been the only viable option for the last 50 years or so. Often these treatments fail and leave the patient in a state of physical ruin, mental exhaustion and emotional emptiness. The medical community is fighting back against the poor prognosis’ attached to many types of cancers by working toward the revolutionary idea of engineering cells produced in one’s own body to fight the malignancies in a manner that will one day make chemo, as well as the agony that it carries with it, a distant memory.

Dr. Carl June, at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a team of researchers developing treatments that battle the issue of Leukemia patients whose T-cells fail to detect and destroy malignant B-cells present in the blood and bone marrow that rapidly divide and, without successful treatment, ultimately lead to death.

These researchers have successfully managed to collect roughly a billion of the patients’ T-cells and modify them to recognize proteins that are present on the diseased B-cells. They then reinsert them into the patient where they find and destroy the cancerous B-cells. The hope is that these reengineered T-cells remain in the body over the course of a lifetime and serve as a cure.

As with any theory, it means nothing without being applied and tested in trials. This form of immunotherapy, known as CTL019 or CART19, has been used on 12 patients up to this point. Nine of these patients have responded well to the treatment, most notably a 7-year-old girl named Emily Whitehead who suffered from the most common form of childhood cancer.

Whitehead had gone through treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and failed to respond well to the chemotherapy and radiation used as standard protocol for the disease when her leukemia relapsed. Out of options, the physicians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and her parents decided that the CTL019 was her only chance of survival.

Upon receiving the treatment, it is typical to expect the patient to run a fever and experience flu-like symptoms. In Whitehead’s case, she got very sick very quickly and was rushed to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit where she remained for an extensive period of time. Weeks later, when she became more stable and afebrile, the doctors checked her bone marrow only to find no trace of leukemia. Emily is the first of many children and adults that will benefit from immunotherapy as she continues to do well and enjoy her newfound health and happiness. The outlook for cancer treatment has never looked as bright as it does today.

Dan Maloney is sophomore studying biological science and a columnist for The Post. If you would like to learn more about Emily Whitehead and her story, email Dan at


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