In the last article, we mentioned how a video circulating all over the internet about a six-year-old girl with leukemia injected with HIV virus became viral because of what the title seemed to be implying, which is very much running along the lines of using a dreaded disease (cancer) to fight another despicable disease (HIV). To top it all off, it’s a sick, little girl diagnosed with cancer that is in the center of it all.
Thankfully though, watching the video and reading the published study from which the film documentary was based, have helped shed light on the issue. We were able to find out that the research was actually led by Philadelphia-based doctor and professor Carl H. June and actually offers a promising future in terms of curing cancer.
While his team’s research began generating a considerable buzz after the film featuring the research was uploaded on Vimeo twelve months ago and eventually on other video hosting sites, the study actually deserves the spotlight but not for the misleading reason that seemed to have sparked the interest of so many.
The truth is actually very logical and has been carefully considered, backed with ample scientific research. The video was able to feature the research during its testing stage. What Dr. June, whose focus is on cancer, HIV, and the human body’s immune system, is actually trying to do is to try to make the immune system equipped to fight cancer.
Why? Because, for some weird reason, our immune system is unable to recognize cancer cells (and the tumors that they have developed into) as foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Since cancer is caused by our own white blood cells that have gone rogue and have spiralled out of control, the immune system cannot confront it the way it was programmed to fight diseases and illnesses.
What Dr. June and his team have done is develop a strategy where they obtain special cells, which they called T cells, from a patient with cancer and reprogram them using a certain type of virus that is capable of transporting specific types of genes into the said T cells. This would then enable the T cells to produce a new protein, which is named “chimeric antigen receptor.” This allows T cells to lock on to the surface of the cancer cells and kills them as a result of the process.
These modified T cells are then injected back to the sources, which is the cancer patient. In theory, they will then start to grow and proliferate, producing a battalion of cells that are specially programmed to fight the disease.
The little girl in the video, whose name is Emily Whitehead, is one of the cancer patients who undergoes the treatment’s early-stage, human clinical trials, as the method has has positive results with animal lab testing. What people might not know is that she isn’t the first to receive the modified T cell treatment. In fact, there years of data that tackles this kind of method.
Three of the patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) that were featured in the film who were about to undergo the said treatment have all tried several rounds of chemotherapy but with little to no success. So when two of the three patients who experienced complete remission, the media went ballistic and over-hyped the whole thing. This was in 2011.
In 2012, the ten adults diagnosed with CLL and two children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) were slated to receive the treatment as part of the ongoing clinical trials. The results by the end of 2012 was quite astounding, where nine of the patients were successfully treated.
Emily (Emma) was part of the clinical trial that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that was mentioned above (with a link that you can click on to read). It wasn’t clear whether Emma was the one out of the two children that experienced a complete remission, because the other one was not able to experience a positive result, as the cancer still came back after the treatment.
As for the HIV, the certain type of virus that is used to reprogram the T cells is called a lentivirus and is actually a group of viruses, which includes of course, HIV. What these can do is sneak into T cells and embed a genetic code within the DNA of the cell, which in this case the genetic instruction is to make the T cells attack the cancer. This is why it’s quite arguable for people to still look at the virus as HIV, when they have already been modified.
And to finish the whole topic, the test was not done by injecting the HIV on the girl, but by treating the virus with the T cells taken from the patient, and reinjecting the now reinforced T cells back to the girl. See the difference?
In conclusion, the film gives hope to cancer treatment, but people have to be wary of what their assumptions can do if they do not look closely at information presented before them. Injecting a sick girl with HIV might sound intriguing enough for people to click and watch a video, but that is simply misinformation at the highest level, and it is very dangerous to those who might try to use this misleading information for the wrong reasons.