Emily Whitehead: A Young Girl Beats Cancer with Immunotherapy
Emily Whitehead's Battle with Leukemia
At only six-years-old, Emily Whitehead was facing a life-threatening recurrence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer. Emily's cancer resisted over 16 months of chemotherapy treatments when her parents were told that her cancer had relapsed and that she would not survive.
Determined to save their child's life, Tom and Kari Whitehead enrolled their daughter in a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy treatment designed to turn Emily's immune system into a powerful weapon against cancer. The treatment, called CAR T cell therapy (CAR stands for "chimeric antigen receptor" and T cells are a type of immune cell that kills virally infected, damaged, or cancerous cells), had never been tested in a child before.
Some parents naturally would think of 'I'm not sure I want my child to be a scientific experiment,' but trying these experimental studies is what leads to breakthroughs.
The treatment worked, and Emily's cancer went into complete remission immediately. In June 2012, at age 7, Emily was discharged from the hospital. Nearly 1,000 people gathered in Emily's town to welcome her home and celebrate her triumph over leukemia.
How Emily Whitehead's Treatment Worked
The immune system’s “killer” T cells are supposed to target and eliminate cancer cells by detecting special markers known as antigens, but Emily’s T cells couldn’t recognize the cancer cells. To remedy this, scientists extracted her T cells, “sent them to bootcamp” by engineering them with a special receptor (CAR), and then put these highly trained T cells back into Emily.
Dr. Carl June, a member of the CRI Scientific Advisory Council, led the clinical team at the University of Pennsylvania that designed the protocol that saved Emily’s life. She was the first child enrolled in the clinical protocol: Patient 1.
As expected, Emily developed a high fever after her infusion, a symptom of the cytokine storm as her newly powerful immune system attacked the cancer. She was put on a ventilator for two weeks as her clinical team watched her closely to keep her safe. Emily woke up on her seventh birthday and eight days later was declared cancer-free.
Emily Whitehead and the Future of Immunotherapy
Emily Whitehead’s story made national headlines and helped focus public attention on the potential for cancer immunotherapy to transform cancer treatment as well as the need to support lifesaving cancer immunotherapy research.
Dr. Carl June, who spent over 20 years developing Emily’s treatment with colleagues, is conducting clinical trials to test cell therapy in more types of cancer. The Cancer Research Institute is proud to support this research. In 2014, the Whitehead family has started a foundation to support pediatric cancer research.
In Emily held her father’s hand as he spoke at the FDA approval hearing for the CAR T cell therap, which was approved in August 2017. As of August 2021, over nine years since her treatment, Emily Whitehead remains cancer-free, and there are now five FDA-approved CAR T cell therapies for people with blood cancer, thanks to the heroic efforts of Emily and others who received these immunotherapies in clinical trials.
Learn more about Emily Whitehead's story and how the Cancer Research Institute is helping to advance research that is leading to treatments like the one Emily received. You can make a difference in the lives of patients like Emily by supporting cancer immunotherapy research efforts today.
Read more immunotherapy patient success stories in our ImmunoCommunity
Special thanks to the Whitehead Family, Dr. Carl June, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Chris Weddle and Abby Drey of the "Centre Daily Times," and The Philadelphia Award.
Photo courtesy of the Emily Whitehead Foundation.
Video production: Really Useful Media
Originally published December 2013. Updated May 2019; August 2021.