Tom Whitehead shared exciting news this week on Facebook: His 10-year-old daughter Emily’s blood work “looks great,” three and a half years after a revolutionary therapy saved her life. And the Emily Whitehead Foundation awarded its first $100,000 grant to her oncologist, Stephan Grupp, at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“The funds will be used to further the T-cell therapy research,” Tom Whitehead posted.
Emily was out of options and dying of leukemia in 2012 when she became the first pediatric patient to receive that experimental immunotherapy, pioneered at the University of Pennsylvania. The treatment involves removing the patient’s own immune system T cells, genetically rigging them to recognize and attack cancerous blood cells, then putting the cells back.
The central Pennsylvania girl’s remarkable Lazarus story became worldwide news, and has continued to be featured in stories and documentaries, notably the PBS TV series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Her parents – Tom, a power company lineman, and Kari, a nutrition research manager at Pennsylvania State University – have become ardent advocates for pediatric cancer research.
But even the Whiteheads didn’t expect the outpouring of support they have received in the year since they created the Emily Whitehead Foundation to raise money for research, promote awareness, and help other families. Their goal for the first year was $50,000 – half the amount they awarded Grupp on Tuesday.
Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant, is now working with Penn and Children's to commercialize the T cell therapy, which has produced remarkable remission rates in more than 280 children and adults with certain blood cancers.