Doctors injected HIV into a six year-old girl, and they aren't the worst people in the world, they are geniuses.
"Emma was incredibly matter-of-fact about all of this," said Dr. Carl June, referring to his sick, six year-old patient. This was a child who had had her leukemia come back twice."
Emma, if left to fend for herself, and even if given traditional treatments, was going to die, probably very soon. It is a peculiar fact of medical research that these patients are extremely valuable to science, because they are willing to try anything that has a chance. Emma's parents agreed to something they never would have had traditional treatments had a hope of working: they would have her injected with a modified form of HIV.
"It's a procedure where we collect their T-cells," explains David L. Porter, MD at the University of Pennsylvania. "And they are infected with a virus that will genetically change them so they will now see and react against their leukemia cells."
Dr. David June picks up the story: "And we actually used the HIV virus to do that....The virus has been engineered so that it can't cause disease anymore, but it still retains the ability to reprogram the immune system so that it will now attack cancer cells."
"We need to make it clear when we talk to a family that it may not work," Stephan A. Grupp, MD, PhD. at Philadephia Children's Hospital adds. These treatments are new, unusual, relatively untested, and not all bodies react the same way to them. This could have done nothing or even accelerated Emma's death.
"Emma received the T-cell treatment, and within a few days, she was very sick," said Grupp. "She had breathing difficulties, she had blood pressure difficulties. We knew that she could not have gotten any sicker without actually dying."
"But then," Porter picks up, "a remarkable thing happened. The T-cells were growing, they were starting to fight the cancer. Within hours, Emma's fever disappeared. Her modified T-cells defeated her leukemia. She went on to, and continues to live a healthy life.
HIV, in its typical malignant form, reprograms the body's T-cells to attack its own immune system. The innovation of Dr. June's lab to use them to target cancer cells is absolutely genius. And one day it might cure cancer. After all, it did for Emma.
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