‘Miracle’ Journey of Girl, 5, Successfully Treated with Car T-Cell Therapy to Premiere at Prestigious Tribeca Film Festival!

Published Apr 22, 2022

Marisa Sullivan

A Miracle Treatment for Cancer

  • Emily Whitehead was 5 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer.
  • Emily was the first pediatric cancer patient to try the experimental CAR T-cell therapy, which wound up saving her life; Now in remission for nearly a decade, a documentary of her journey, Of Medicine and Miracles, will be premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.
  • Getting CAR T-cell therapy is different from having traditional cancer treatments. It’s a form of immunotherapy, which means that it retrains your own cells to find and kill cancer. T cells are immune cells that help your body fight off foreign and dangerous invaders, such as cancer.

A medical miracle. Emily Whitehead, 15, from Philipsburg, Pennsylvania was 5 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Her chances of survival were slim—as she wasn’t responding to treatment—but the family never gave up hope.

The Whitehead family was presented with an opportunity to have Emily be the first child to try an experimental immunotherapy treatment. Understandably desperate to try anything to save their daughter, they agreed. Now, almost ten years later, Emily is still in remission, and a documentary will show the world the journey of this brave pioneer who survived cancer with a groundbreaking treatment called CAR T-cell therapy.

Of Medicine and Miracles, by Academy Award-winner Ross Kauffman, will premiere at the notable Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in June. The film includes family footage, along with video taken from a film crew.

“At the time, I didn’t know how else to look at it, I said, you know, my daughter is going to change the world so I said, yes you can follow us with a camera,” Emily’s father Tom Whitehead told WTAJ, a Central Pennsylvania news station.

Tom, his wife Kari, and their daughter want to change the world, and are dedicated to other families fighting childhood cancer. According to the Emily Whitehead Foundation Instagram page, the family is eager to share “the incredible story of Dr. Carl June, Dr. Stephan Grupp, Emily Whitehead, and the teams at @pennmedicine and @childrensphila coming together to make medical history.”

 

 

Emily is also creating quite a buzz in Hollywood ahead of her film, and has connected with people like superstar Lady Gaga, actor Bradley Cooper, and director Steven Spielberg, who believes the young trailblazer should continue on with a filmmaking career.

Emily’s Cancer Battle

When Emily first began the treatment as a little girl, doctors took out Emily’s cells, which were then modified at Penn labs to to attack cancer cells, then put back inside of her. Initially, after the six-week process, the side effects were killing her, and she was put into a coma. Her doctor told Emily’s father Tom that “she wasn’t going to make it.” In fact, he had already written a letter explaining why she didn’t survive.

Then Emily miraculously survived and her body began to recover. She woke up on her 7th birthday just four days later.

Now in 2022, there are 95 hospitals throughout 11 different countries using CAR-T. Emily is a star around the world, especially at every major cancer center. She became a public speaker, and spreads a message of hope as a living medical miracle.

Courtesy of Emily Whitehead Foundation website.

“Anybody can change the world if you believe that you can do that,” her dad said, giving a sneak peak of an exciting event to come. “They’re gonna come out on May 10 here, on her ten-year cancer-free anniversary, and actually call it a cure, a new cure for cancer, not just a cure for her, but a new cure for cancer,” said Tom.

Understanding CAR T-Cell Therapy

Getting CAR T-cell therapy is different from having traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. For one thing, it’s a form of immunotherapy, which means that it retrains your own cells to find and kill cancer. T cells are immune cells that help your body fight off foreign and dangerous invaders, such as cancer.

Related: Do You Know Your B Cells From Your T Cells?

“CAR T-cells are cells that we can take from your body and engineer to specifically recognize the multiple myeloma, and to kill those cells,” Dr. Nina Shah, hematologist and professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told SurvivorNet.

CAR T-Cell Therapy A Step-By-Step Guide to Having This Breakthrough Treatment

These cells reside in your blood. So to start this treatment, some of your blood will be removed in a process known as apheresis.

“Your cells are going to be taken out of your body by a blood draw,” Dr. Shah explained. “They will hook you up to this apheresis machine, and you will likely have an IV placed, and then you will have blood taken out. And that will be a couple of hours process.” They’ll filter out the cells they need, and return the rest of your blood to you.

The Impact of a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis on the Whole Family

To learn more about Emily Whitehead’s incredible story with this treatment, check out the Emily Whitehead Foundation site.

 

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