Emily Whitehead was diagnosed with standard-risk pre-b acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in May 2010 when she was five years old.
Typically, children diagnosed with this type of leukemia have an 85% to 90% chance of being cured; however, Emily relapsed in October 2011. A bone marrow transplant was scheduled for February 2012, but Emily relapsed again just weeks before the transplant date. Her leukemia was so aggressive that doctors felt they had run out of options and recommended that she go home on hospice.
Emily’s parents, Tom and Kari, were not willing to give up. They had heard about an innovative new treatment called CAR T-cell therapy that had just become available at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). In April 2012, Emily was enrolled in a Phase I clinical trial and became the first child in the world to have her immune system trained to fight cancer. The process involved collecting her T-cells (a type of white blood cell), genetically reprogramming them to recognize and attack cancer cells, and infusing the modified cells back into Emily’s blood. The treatment was highly experimental, but it was Emily’s only chance for a cure. Incredibly, the T-cell therapy worked, and Emily has been in remission since May 2012.
Emily’s treatment gained worldwide attention, and her story has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, PARENTS Magazine, the Stand-Up-to-Cancer Telethon, HBO Vice, and the PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies by Ken Burns. A 3-minute documentary about her treatment called Fire with Fire by Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman is available on YouTube.
Tom, Kari, and Emily travel internationally to share Emily’s story and to raise awareness for childhood cancer research.