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A new leukemia treatment, which showed success in adults during its debut, is now making the same headway in children, states a report from the CBS Evening News. The process uses disabled human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)–the virus that causes AIDS–to modify T-cells in a way which allows them to track and target leukemia cells.

The experimental leukemia treatment utilizes the body’s own T-cell immune cells to target cancer cells and eradicate them from the body. While it is currently in its test phase, researchers have 10 adults and 2 children undergoing treatment, and both pediatric patients are showing signs of improvement; overall, 9 out of 10 patients have shown positive results.

The research is being headed up by Dr. Stephen Grupp at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Grupp has pioneered a new immunotherapy technique in a trial process called CART19. The therapy is designed to treat patients with  acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is the most common form of childhood cancer.

Leukemia treatment offers hope

Grupp and his team have engineered T-cells to attack cancer cells by modifying them with disabled HIV. Under normal circumstances, T-cells are blind to cancer cells, but the research team has found HIV provided a way around this. By engineering the T-cell to track a specific protein on the B-cell associated with leukemia, Grupp’s team was able to create an antibody against the disease. Once engineered, the new T-cells are able to effectively kill off leukemia cells.

What’s more, according to a presentation Grupp gave at the Pediatric Cancer Summit, the engineered T-cells remain in the patient’s body even after all the B-cells have been destroyed, offering lasting protection in case leukemia returns.

Evidence of the leukemia treatment’s success can be seen in the case of 7-year-old Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with  acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of 5. While the majority of ALL cases in children can be resolved through chemotherapy, Whitehead did not benefit from the treatment, and her family eventually turned to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Once at the hospital, Whitehead was initiated on leukemia treatment and given a dose of her own T-cells, which had been removed from her body, and then engineered to attack leukemia cells. She had a severe reaction to the treatment, and doctor’s prepared her family for the worst.

“They took us out in the hall and said there is no room to get sicker,” Tom Whitehead, Emily’s father, told CBS Evening News. “She is as sick as she can get. You should call your family in. There’s a good chance she won’t be here in the morning.”

Doctors were able to pull the little girl through the worst of the treatment, however, and 10 days later her condition had dramatically improved. Grupp states they cannot currently find any traces of ALL in Emily’s body, even with their most sensitive testing techniques. After two years of being leukemia-free, the little girl will be able to be declared cured, even though that is not a word doctors are comfortable with right now.

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