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How Doctors Are Using HIV To Fight Cancer

The woman who acquired film rights to 'The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,' the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, died of cancer in 2011. Ken Burns completed the project.

If you haven't battled cancer or suffered through it with a loved one, odds are you will. One in three women and nearly one in two men face it directly. Cancer's torturous history of promised cures, setbacks and hope renewed is laid out in an upcoming six-hour Ken Burns film series called Cancer: The Emperor Of All Maladies. 

Film directorBarak Goodman tellsThink host KrysBoyd that doctors are employing other notorious diseases like HIV to fight cancer in much the same way cancer kills its victims. 

"Basically, the HIV virus is an incredibly effective penetrator of cells as we know. It gets right in there, and if it’s not diffused, it will kill you," Goodman says. "But they’ve found a way to take out what is harmful about it but keep its unique ability to find and penetrate cells. And what they do is they insert the gene inside that neutered HIV virus – insert a gene that will transform the immune cells that these viruses are finding into cancer-fighting immune cells. ... It's amazing."

Emily's story

Emily Whitehead, a child who had leukemia, is featured in the upcoming Emperor Of All Maladies documentary.

In 2012, The New York Times profiled Whitehead. Emily had relapsed twice after chemotherapy. Her parents had her undergo an experimental treatment at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The Times reported on Emily, who also goes by Emma:

[The treatment] had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment ... used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells. The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about seven months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer. ... To perform the treatment, doctors remove millions of the patient’s T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. The technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia. The altered T-cells — called chimeric antigen receptor cells — are then dripped back into the patient’s veins, and if all goes well they multiply and start destroying the cancer.

Update: The latest on Emily

Emily's family posted an update earlier this year on her website:

We have had a lot of positive things happening lately which gives us the chance to continue spreading awareness about Emily’s miracle and the amazing success her therapy continues to have. She has been feeling great and she is thriving in 4th grade, learning to play the piano, and finally ready to try organized sports. ... We have more exciting things to announce in the future but the most important thing is that Emily’s bloodwork came back with zero B-cells. The T-cells are still working and her bloodwork looks perfect. I wish I could say we will worry less now but the truth is we are now and will always just be happy for every day we get to spend as a family.

Watch this video to learn more about Emily (Emma) Whitehead

'These cells are immortal'

Cancer has evaded a cure since the first documented patient, a Persian queen, Atossa, worried about a bleeding lump in her breast around 550 B.C. To understand why scientists and doctors still don't have the answers we need, Goodman says we must face the disease as a puzzling extension of human vitality. 

"Because the thing that’s so devastatingly complex and devious about cancer is that it’s basically the flip side of what keeps us alive," Goodman says. "In other words, the very things that make us grow and survive the division of cells … the instinct of cells to keep dividing and growing. Those very energies and forces unleashed are cancer. 

"It’s a perfection, in a way, of our bodily drives," Goodman continues. "It’s sort of immortality. I mean – if cancer didn’t kill us, it would keep us growing forever. We’d become immortal. These cells are immortal, they don’t die. That’s the very problem with them. They don’t die until they kill us, and then they die." 

Listen to the full conversation with Barak Goodman

Learn more about Cancer: The Emperor Of All Maladies

Learn more about the biological and emotional legacies of the disease when Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies airs on KERA-TV beginning March 30.

A North Texas boy grows up after cancer

And meet your neighbors on the rollercoaster of diagnosis and treatment during the next few weeks on Morning Edition, when KERA runs a special Breakthroughs series called Growing Up After Cancer. Catch up on the stories here.

About Think

Think features in-depth interviews with compelling guests, covering a wide variety of topics -- from history, politics and current events to science, travel and adventure. Think airs on KERA 90.1 FM noon-2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with repeats at 9-11 p.m.Listen to Think interviews here.

Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.