Leaders in medicine meet in London to discuss T cell immunotherapy

VIDEO: Leaders in medicine meet in London to discuss T cell immunotherapy

LONDON — There is more than a battle over tackles and touchdowns this NFL weekend here in London.

On Friday, in the House of Commons --  the seat of power in Britain --  some of the smartest and most dedicated minds in medicine met to, very literally, save dying children’s lives.

In a city full of royalty, legends and heroes 8-year-old Erin Cross fits in perfectly, and is a living example that miracles can happen.

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At 2, Erin was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. From their home outside of London, Erin’s parents brought her to the city for lifesaving treatment. For a time, it worked.

“We were just devastated,” Erin’s mother said. “She was 2 when she was originally diagnosed, in December 2012, and she had been [doing] poorly for a few weeks leading up to that moment, but we never thought it would be something so devastating. Everyone says your world falls apart, and it did.”

“We were in disbelief that it was happening again,” Erin’s father said.

Erin’s one chance at a miracle came in the form of a cancer treatment trial at Seattle Children’s Hospital: a new form of T cell immunotherapy - one that if successful, held the promise of saving countless other young lives.

Dr. Mike Jensen, a cancer immunotherapy pioneer and the head of childhood cancer research at Seattle Children’s, believes it is the most promising experimental cancer therapy of our time.

“Can we teach the immune system to go after cancer like it does the common cold?” Jensen said. “The ramifications of that, if successful, are that being cured of cancer wouldn’t be much harder than having the flu for a couple days. We have seen children go into remission where all other therapy failed.”

Each year in the United States, more than 10,000 children are diagnosed with cancer. About 1,200 die from the disease. Now that experimental trial that saved Erin is Topic A here in a conference convened by Seattle Children's to treat and ultimately eradicate the leading cause of death by disease in children -- cancer.

The conference, called Innovations in Pediatric Healthcare. is bringing together hospitals, doctors and researchers from the United States and Great Britain.

What makes this treatment so promising?

Doctors and researchers in this building have pioneered the ability to take some of a child’s T cells and ship them to Seattle where they are genetically reprogrammed to fight the cancer and returned. Then they are put back inside the child. The child’s immune system does the rest.

The new Seattle Children’s research facility, opening in 2019, will be one of the most advanced cancer-fighting research institutes in the world. It’s called Building Cure, and Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson has been going to Seattle Children’s to visit patients even before becoming so widely known.

“When Ciara and I walk into a hospital room, what we’re praying for is a miracle,” Wilson said. “And the thing about going to a hospital room is that every one is different. The emotion, the faith, the belief, the lack of belief, or the hope for it. You can never measure that until you experience it.”

Wilson has seen the lifesaving work firsthand and heard the stories of families and kids and cancer.

“Think about a kid in New York City, a kid in Atlanta, Georgia, a kid down in Miami, a kid in London – wherever it may be around the world, Seattle Children’s is doing some special things here, and it’s an honor to be a part of it,” Wilson said. “So many amazing doctors, so many amazing people, so much hope and belief.”

T cell immunotherapy is expensive, and government funding doesn't begin to cover the costs.

Pediatric cancer research receives less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute budget.

If you'd like to help Russell Wilson's Strong Against Cancer initiative, you can find more information here.