New Cancer Cure: World’s First Child Treated with Immunotherapy Is Cancer-free 10 Years Later

Emily Whitehead, the first child in the world to receive CAR T-cell immunotherapy, celebrates 10 years cancer free.


New Cancer Cure: World’s First Child Treated with Immunotherapy Is Cancer-free 10 Years Later

Emily Whitehead: It's definitely a blessing that I don't remember what happened during that time. I really only remember like the fun things, like playing air hockey with my dad or doing things like that. So, I mean, occasionally I'll have to ask, like, when did this happen or when did we do this?

Because I'm sure that my parents remember everything.

Kari Whitehead: Emily was diagnosed when she was five years old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. And they told us that it's the most common type of childhood cancer and also the most treatable. But once you relapse and relapse, more than once, like Emily did, there are fewer options to treat that.

And it got to the point to where they said "Here, we don't have any more options for her. And we think it's time for you to take her home and she'll have a couple of weeks left."

We just looked at each other and said, "We have to call CHOP."

Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD: At that point in time, her treating doctors are saying the only option for a patient in this situation is hospice. Family didn't want that answer. And by an amazing series of events, this CAR-T trial opened at the exact moment that she needed it.

Tom Whitehead: We know how close we were to losing her, but finding something outside the box, that was a little bit different, gave us hope. Dr. Grupp was up front saying, "We don't know what's gonna happen."

Kari Whitehead: But we knew that we were surrounded by a great team who just wanted to help Emily. And you know, if we try this and it doesn't work, we know that we did try everything that was out there.

We did everything we possibly could.

Tom Whitehead: Over the next 24 hours, that was the scariest part of her treatment. Those cells killing the cancer so fast, overwhelmed her system and things just kept getting worse.

Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD: She got so sick that we didn't think she was gonna make it. We identified a number of these proteins that were unbelievably high, but one of them was actually a protein that we had a drug for. We gave her that drug and that changed everything.

Tom Whitehead: She work up actually on her seventh birthday on May 2nd of 2012, and then they tested her. Dr. Grupp said to me, "This is amazing. We don't see any cancer."

Kari Whitehead: You know we just thought, let's see what happens. And then it just, now, it's 10 years. Yeah, it's years now.

Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD: This was so exciting within the field of cancer therapy. I feel like her experience with CAR-T has, in some ways changed the world. We learned that we could do this in kids. We learned how to control the toxicity. We learned that we could skip bone marrow transplants.

Emily Whitehead: I always like to thank the team at CHOP. Without them. I wouldn't be here and having the opportunity to leave the hospital and come home and just live a normal life and have things like going to college or getting my license. It's so important to families who have had to go through cancer treatment.

So I always like to tell families and children right now who are in treatment, that it is really important to never give up and to always keep believing in yourself.

And in the words of my dad, to find something to smile about every day. Just finding that little ray of hope can really help you through some hard times.

Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD: Do I believe Emily's cured? Do I believe the other children who are 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years out from their therapy are cured? I believe they are.

Related Centers and Programs: Cancer Immunotherapy Program