HBO to Feature First Child Treated With T-cells for Cancer

Nick Mulcahy

February 23, 2015

After being presented at prominent medical meetings, published in major scientific journals, and reported by Medscape Medical News and many other news outlets, the phenomenal story of cancer treatment with chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-modified T-cells is ready for a media progression — to prime-time television.

But the debut will not be on public television's much-publicized Ken Burns Presents Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a Film by Barak Goodman, the three-part, 6-hour television series that will air March 30, March 31, and April 1.

Instead, the prime-time premiere of CAR T-cell therapy will occur on Killing Cancer, an HBO special that will initially air on February 27.

The HBO program will feature the stories of CAR T-cells and two other experimental approaches to cancer treatment, all of which involve therapies derived from viruses.

The hour-long special tells the remarkable tale of 11-year-old Emily Whitehead, from Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, who is the first pediatric cancer patient ever treated with CAR T-cells. These immune cells, which are bioengineered in a process that uses an HIV-derived lentivirus vector, home in on tumor cells.

Whitehead was treated with CAR T-cells for relapsed/refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a last ditch effort to change her worsening prognosis.

The story also highlights the cytokine-release syndrome — a violent inflammatory process that can occur with T-cell therapy — and reveals a surprising, poetic turn of events in the Whitehead case.

T-cell therapy, which has been experimentally used in acute lymphoblastic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, represents a "true paradigm shift" in the treatment of blood cancers, says Carl June, MD, from the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, one of the developers of the innovative treatment approach. "Pounds of leukemia literally went away in 5 weeks," says Dr June about the young girl's treatment.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life," Whitehead's clinician, Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), says about the case.

The roaring success of T-cell therapy at Penn and CHOP was in peril about 5 years ago. The HBO special describes a calculated gamble — the publication of early results in a handful of patients — that Dr June took to reinvigorate funding for its research.

The 6-hour PBS series, which is based on the 2010 Pulitzer Prize–winning book entitled The Emperor of All Maladies, traces the history of cancer and its treatment. The book  stops at the advent of targeted therapies, such as imatinib (Gleevec, Novartis) for chronic myeloid leukemia.

The PBS series  extends that timeline and describes emerging cancer immunotherapies such immune checkpoint inhibitors and T-cell therapy, Louis J. DeGennaro, PhD, president and CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, one of the supporters of the documentary and of CAR T-cell therapy at Penn, said in recent comments to Medscape Medical News.

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