As early as April, 6-year-old Emma Brooke Whitehead’s leukemia seemed inevitably terminal after two years of treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Researchers decided to risk everything on a stunning new treatment: a genetically modified HIV stripped of its capacity to induce AIDs and modified to turn millions of Emma’s white blood cells into cancer-fighting machines.
The experimental cure initially seemed like it could have been lethal; Emma reached a fever of 105 following treatment, doctors said. Emma was successfully stabilized using an “off label” rheumatoid arthritis drug, which blocked the side effects of the modified HIV.
Researcher Dr. Stephen Grupp, a pediatric oncologist at CHOP, said “there is no danger of infection and there is no longer the HIV virus … she has no leukemia in her body for any test that we can do – even the most sensitive ones.” Eight months after treatment, Emma now appears to have been completely cured of her cancer. According to her mother, Emma now has the energy to play with her dog, go to school, and even play soccer.
Utilizing modified viruses to combat disease is far from new. In 2007, scientists at Oxford University announced a plan to suppress cancer utilizing an altered common cold virus with a polymer sheath that prevented the tumor from detecting it was being infected.
While obviously promising, the treatment is not a magic bullet – yet.
“We need to see that the remission goes on for a couple of years before we think about whether she is cured or not. It is too soon to say,” Dr. Grupp cautioned..
Unfortunately, this major development in cancer research was accompanied by a massive simultaneous setback. While successes are being made in Philadelphia, doctors in Texas allege that they have not been given the proper support they need to combat deadly cancer- and that Texas politicos have been stealing from cancer patients to pad their personal wallets.
Tthe Dallas Morning News broke a series of explosive articles alleging that payments intended to go to Texas’s Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas ended up in the hands of GOP Governor Rick Perry donors James Leininger and Jimmy Mansour, among others. Days later, the recipients of these funds purportedly had shifted these funds back towards the campaign funds of Governor Perry and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst.
If substantiated, the allegations hold the potential to bring significantly more focus to cancer research and prevention on a national scale. The Huffington Post today dubbed it the “Cancer Cronyism” scandal.
The agency’s scientists in charge of funding have reportedly resigned in protest, according to the Dallas Morning News report. Senior scientist Dr. William Kaelin of Harvard, a member of the agency’s review board, claimed in a statement to the Houston Chronicle that “I recently learned that at least two scientific reviewers who had given non-fundable scores to a commercialization project were asked by CPRIT to 'reconsider' their scores so that they would be in harmony with those given by the commercial reviewers, who were much more favorable. I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will triumph over grandiose promises and hucksterism.”
“If these people will sacrifice victims of cancer to further their own wealth and power, it is doubtful they’ll resist the temptation to destroy education or raid our earned savings and health care insurance,” said commentator Glenn W. Smith of Firedoglake.