Doctors Used This Teen’s Own Cells to Cure Her Leukemia—but They Almost Killed Her First

For the over 15,000 children diagnosed with cancer annually, leukemia treatment has been chemotherapy. That's about to change thanks to a groundbreaking advancement that could change the way many cancers are treated. Read more about the new treatment and a patient that is in full remission against all odds today, because of it.

Courtesy Don Collins[dropcap]E[/dropcap]mma Collins was 14 when her parents began to notice something wasn’t right with the typically energetic teen. Her father, Don Collins, tells Reader’s Digest: “Emma was feeling tired and had very low energy at school. After a few days of noticing this, we had her blood tested.” Collins continues, “Later that night, the hematology lab called our house directly and told us to go to the hospital immediately. We took her in, and they confirmed our worst fear: Emma had leukemia.” Emma was diagnosed with pre B acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a fast growing form of leukemia that begins in the B cells of bone marrow. Approximately 80 to 85 percent of children diagnosed with ALL have a version that originates in B cells.

Shocked and heartbroken, Emma and her parents faced treatment options that included grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Collins recalls, “Emma’s treatment was three intensive rounds of chemotherapy, along with another medication called Sprycell. She was hospitalized at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario for over six months.” For the Collins, watching their daughter struggle to remain strong through the treatments was the most difficult.”The lowest point for my wife and I was, seeing the gradual worsening of her health. She lost her hair, became unable to walk, and had constant infections that led to four ICU stays. She had very close calls with death,” Collins explains. The Collins never gave up the belief that the next treatment would be successful, though their hopes were repeatedly dashed. Collins says, “Of course, we kept hoping that the next round of chemotherapy would work, and when they all failed we were crushed. We were told that her chances of surviving another round of chemotherapy were extremely low, and it would likely yield the same negative results,” he says. Patients with any cancer diagnosis should know these seven hopeful cancer statistics.

Left with no other viable chemotherapy treatment options, the Collins considered clinical trials conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. One of these trials was the CAR-T cell therapy, a new type of stem cell therapy with proven success in achieving remission for patients with leukemia. Doctors collect and then modify a patient’s own immune cells so that they recognize the cancer cells as an invader and mount a fight. Next, the modified cells are injected back into the patient to attack the cancerous cells. One serious drawback is that the treatment can also cause a potentially fatal immune reaction called cytokine release syndrome. While the reaction can be managed with medication, the patient can still feel lousy during treatment.

Courtesy Don CollinsDesperate to save their daughter, Collins and his wife agreed to try the CAR-T therapy. He says, “With the news that all other treatment had failed, we kept up hope that this new treatment would help.” Emma began to show signs of cytokine release syndrome only hours after the initial treatment; her fever spiked to 111 degrees, and she was nauseated. Her extremely elevated fever caused her to slip into a coma-like state, and she became unconscious for a short time, until doctors could stabilize her temperature.

A few days later, the Collins family received the stunning news: “On the fourth day after treatment, the doctor came into our room and told us Emma was in full remission,” Collins says. “At first, it took a minute to sink in—I was stunned but overcome with joy. We all sat together and laughed, cried, and went through all of the emotions that come with this kind of fantastic news.” New medical developments are occurring at a fast pace with advancements in technology, and recent studies have also shown that good cholesterol, or HDL, can lower the risk of cancer.

Max Gomez, PhD, CBS News Medical Correspondent, and co-author of the upcoming book, Cells Are The New Cure, believes that cell therapy will be utilized in the future to treat many chronic conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and type 1 diabetes. Cancer is only the beginning, Dr. Gomez told Reader’s Digest. “We as humans have the hubris to think we can create drugs to heal people—and we have—but we’ve got nothing on the human cell.” According to Dr. Gomez, not only do the modified cells used in CAR-T therapy kill cancer cells during initial treatment, but they also create memory cells that continue to fight any cancerous cells that reappear once treatment has completed. “This will completely change leukemia treatment for children and adults—and it already has,” he says.

As for Emma, now 16, she’s living the life her parents hoped she would. “She’s doing great in remission, and has caught up in school, even achieving honor roll. She just received her driver’s license, and she works out often to regain her balance and strength, something she lost from chemo,” Collins says. He adds, “She’s getting back to a normal teenager’s life. Our greatest hope for Emma is to enjoy life and be happy and strong. We want her to look back on this and tell her grandchildren of the many great things she has achieved, including never losing hope and living through cancer.” For patients that have reached remission there are several beneficial ways to care for yourself, mentally and physically after the cancer is gone.

Courtesy Don CollinsEmma’s parents want other families facing a similar battle to know that though it’s new, trying CAR-T therapy can be worth the risk. He says, “We absolutely encourage patients to proceed with this treatment. We know it can be scary as it is new, but we went from no hope to remission in four days—that should give everyone hope. Hope means everything to a family going through a cancer diagnosis.”

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Jen Babakhan
Jen Babakhan is a freelance writer who loves to help others through the written word. She writes about faith and motherhood at her site, and loves to inspire others through Instagram, where she can be found @jenbabakhan. You can also find her on Facebook @JenBabakhan, Writer.