Contributed by Cancer Research Institute
NEW YORK, June 2, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- At six years old Emily Whitehead was only
two weeks from a bone marrow transplant when her leukemia came back for a second
Emily, who goes by Emma, had been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia since
she was five years old. With her second relapse, she and her parents were out of
options -- until she was offered a place as the first child in a Phase 1
Her parents, Tom and Kari Whitehead, of Philipsburg, Pa., said they didn't know
much about immunotherapy before Emma started the trial, but the treatment felt
right. "We had lots of concerns but it was our one glimmer of hope," Tom
Six weeks after she was injected with a modified form of her own T cells, Emma
went home cancer-free.
Now others are testing immunotherapy on different forms of cancer, in hopes that
it can provide a long-lasting way of treating cancer with few side effects.
Where It Started
Cancers don't operate the way most diseases do. Instead of invading from
outside, they arise from mutations in the body's own cells, making it difficult
for the immune system to recognize cancer as foreign. This problem means
traditional treatments damage healthy cells using radiation, surgery or
Now cancer research is looking more at new treatments that are less damaging and
invasive. That has led to a renewed interest in immunotherapy, and the
declaration of June as Cancer Immunotherapy Awareness Month. June 7 became "Wear
White for a Cure Day," sponsored by New York-based Cancer Research Institute
(CRI) and 1-800-FLOWERS.COM. As a nonprofit, CRI is committed to advancing
scientific efforts to develop immune-system-based strategies to prevent,
diagnose, treat and cure all cancers.
"We've seen a significant rise in cancer immunotherapy interest, research and
treatments in the last decade," said Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, CEO and director of
scientific affairs for CRI. "We've been researching immunotherapy for 60 years,
and it's exciting to see more people recognizing the promise it shows for many
Researchers are now developing treatments that harness the immune system. Emma's
treatment used an inactive form of HIV to modify her own T cells to help them
recognize and kill cancerous cells.
"Think of it like altering the gene sequence of these T cells so that they
become trained assassins working for an individual's immune system," said Dr.
Carl June, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of
Pennsylvania, speaking to CRI in 2012.
Another drug spurs growth of the immune cell called the T cell, which then
Metastasized to Nothing
That was the case for New York City resident Mary Elizabeth Williams, a senior
writer for Salon.com. After her diagnosis of malignant melanoma, Williams had
surgery to remove the cancer. But about a year later, her cancer had
metastasized, spread into her lungs and back, and the diagnosis of Stage 4
melanoma was grim.
With few options, Williams was offered a place in a clinical immunotherapy
trial, run by Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York City, and a member of CRI's scientific leadership.
"A 30 percent success rate is considered a home run in cancer," Williams said.
"It changes your whole mindset when you realize how differently doctors and
researchers view success. ... I wouldn't go on a birth control with a 30 percent
But Williams took the chance. A few weeks after beginning treatment, Williams'
tumors had shrunk dramatically. Three months later, she was cancer-free. The
results of Sloan-Kettering's trial were announced June 2, and about 40 percent
of participants saw reduction in tumors with 10 percent experiencing complete
remissions using the immunotherapy drugs.
Emma's improvement was equally striking. She was cancer-free three weeks after
the T cell injections. While her modified T cells will not last forever, they
will continue to work long after her treatment. "It felt like there'd been an
elephant sitting on my chest and I couldn't breathe. And it stood up," Tom
Whitehead said of his relief at Emma's one-year cancer-free mark in May.
The future is promising for cancer immunotherapy, Dr. June said in a 2012
interview with the Cancer Research Institute. His team is working on
mesothelioma, and pancreatic, ovarian, prostate and breast cancers, and other
researchers are looking into a brain cancer and other cancers.
"It's been a very exciting time to see the change from the skepticism that we've
all had to go through in the past, to now where there are immunotherapies being
FDA-approved because they can activate cancer-specific T cells. I think we've
come to the tipping point now where there is acceptance that immunotherapy can
provide a long-lasting effect and has a lot of promise," Dr. June said.
Part of realizing that promise is funding research, O'Donnell-Tormey said. At
most research institutions globally, she said Cancer Research Institute is
funding or has funded research into cancer immunotherapy to spur new research
and treatments that will be better for patients.
For Williams, one of the most amazing things about immunotherapy is the feeling
"The physical and the psychological are so deeply entwined," she said. "...The
way you look affects the way you feel and affects the way people treat you and
interact with you. And to look still relatively like myself, to be relatively
like myself, not have dramatic weight loss, not lose my hair, not have nausea,
made a huge difference."
While Williams said she didn't go into the trial thinking about advancing cancer
research, later knowing her results will help other people adds to the feeling
"Normally when people say you got cancer for a reason, you want to punch them in
the face," Williams said, laughing. But being a part of cancer immunotherapy
research has helped her feel like she is leaving a legacy from her melanoma
"I think that's something awesome about immunology," she said. "...It's
certainly, when you stop and think about it, much more powerful and exciting and
participatory than a doctor coming in and cutting something out of you or a
medicine coming in and poisoning out the cancer."
Williams said cancer research has been stuck for a long time, and seeing new
advances that empower patients is important. For all the talk of a cure, she
said there's not enough research going into drugs that will treat cancer in a
Now, more than 15 months clear of cancer, Williams is hoping the tide in cancer
treatment is changing.
SOURCE Cancer Research Institute