Sometimes a scientific or medical breakthrough doesn't touch the public until you put a face and a name on it: This short film called "Fire with Fire," gives you Emma, a 6-year-old leukemia patient whose cancer was cured - read again: Cured. - by an experimental therapy which used a modified HIV virus to reprogram her immune system to eradicate cancerous cells.
The breakthrough has been known about for a couple years, since Dr. Carl June, director of the Translational Research and a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Abramson Cancer Center, released a study in 2011 at PennMedicine. But medical studies tend to be pretty dry, formal, and impersonal. This video about Dr. June and one of his patients, 6-year-old Emma (produced by GE's Focus Forward initiative) is not.
"Is it hard for you to say those words: 'We're trying to cure cancer?'" asks the off-camera interviewer in the video's outset. With a reserved smile, Dr. Carl June answers: "That's a really good question, why it's hard to say, 'We want to cure cancer.' We do," he says. "And... I think sometimes it's hard to think... that you might actually succeed."
Emma, a multiple cancer patient in her young life, was at the end of her rope. With no other options, her parents decided to try Dr. June's experimental therapy, which uses a disease-stripped HIV virus to reprogram T-cells - the immune system's disease killers. The reason why the HIV virus causes AIDS (and why it's so deadly) is because of its ability to turn T-cells into killers of cells they're not supposed to target. What Dr. June managed to do is to change the way the HIV virus programs the T-cells, to turn these "serial killer" cells into cancer killers.
When doctors injected the virus-modified T-cells, Emma was close to death within a few days. "She had breathing difficulties; she had blood pressure difficulties," says Dr. Stephan A. Grupp, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "We knew that she could not have gotten any sicker, without actually dying."
But then, the T-cells grew enough to begin fighting the cancer, and "within hours," Emma's fever disappeared. "She woke up, and there was no leukemia," says Dr. June.
According to the study by Dr. June, the results of this method of killing cancer have been unprecedented. The modified T-cells kill the cancer cells en masse, and are shown to replicate and stay in the body long after treatment.
"We saw at least a 1000-fold increase in the number of modified T cells in each of the patients. Drugs don't do that," said Dr. June. "In addition to an extensive capacity for self-replication, the infused T cells are serial killers. On average, each infused T cell led to the killing of thousands of tumor cells - and overall, destroyed at least two pounds of tumor in each patient." On top of that, the t cells have been seen to "reawaken" continuing to kill any cancer cells months after the treatment.
You can watch this video for more details. It's really amazing, though it can't possibly move you as much as the story of Emma's recovery.