Emma’s success wasn’t instantaneous, however. In fact, “she could not have gotten any sicker without dying,” Grupp said.
After the April procedure, Emma had an averse reaction. She couldn’t breathe on her own. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. Doctors put Emma into a coma. She was in too much pain. At one point she had 17 IV pumps keeping her alive, her father said.
After a few days on the ventilator a doctor took the Whiteheads into the hospital’s hallway to deliver the bad news. The procedure didn’t work.
“She’s not going to be here tomorrow,” they said. “Kids can’t survive this,’ ” Whitehead said.
Whitehead refused to accept the opinion. “I said, ‘I can’t tell you how I know this for sure, but she will be here tomorrow.’ ”
Then, a discovery.
All the activated T cells produced inflammatory proteins and one of the proteins — interleukin 6 (IL6) — went through the roof. Someone in the research lab hit upon an idea. June’s daughter had taken a drug to aid her rheumatoid arthritis, which is exacerbated by IL6. Maybe the treatment to reduce IL6 could be the answer.
“Turns out this particular inflammatory protein can be blocked with the drug designed to block rheumatoid arthritis,” Grupp said.
Within hours after receiving the arthritis medication, Emma began to recover.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’d ever seen,” Grupp said. “Her fever went away almost immediately. Her breathing difficulties resolved overnight. She was on three meds for her blood pressure and we couldn’t get rid of them fast enough because she didn’t need them anymore. From that point forward she’s been fine.
Today, Emma is 8 and a healthy second-grader. Her Facebook page, Prayers for Emily (Emma) Whitehead, has had more than 300,000 views so far and nearly 22,000 “likes.”
In June, Emma, clutching a bright purple stuffed animal, and her parents walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol to urge legislators to support the research that saved her life. The Whiteheads traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of Family Advocacy Day sponsored by the National Association of Children’s Hospitals.
The trials are ongoing.
“In principle, the T-cell approach might be adapted to other cancers but this type of thing only works for that kind of cancer,” Grupp said. “There’s every intent in the next six months or so to get a clinical trial that involves multiple adult and pediatric hospitals.”
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