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On borrowed time: new clinical trial for children with recurring leukemia

Photo provided to KOMO 

SEATTLE -- There's a word in cancer care that you're hearing more and more: immunotherapy. This promising treatment is curing some cancers that would otherwise be deadly. But it's not saving everyone. Seattle Children's just launched a new immunotherapy treatment for kids who were out of options.

That could include 6-year old Lucy. She's been fighting leukemia for half of her life. Since Christmas Eve, at the age of 3, her days have been filled with hospital stays, doctor's appointments and a near quarantine to protect her vulnerable immune system.

She has had moments of a normal childhood, but they are short lived. It was a milestone when she started preschool over the summer. But later that same day came word of a relapse.

"I'll be really honest. After two relapses, it's really hard and continues to be hard to hang on to that hope," said Lucy's mom Nicole Watters. "Part of me knows she's on borrowed time."

Scientists at the Ben Towne Center, part of the Seattle Children's Research Institute, are scrambling to help children like Lucy.

In their T-cell factory, they take a child's white blood cells that fight infection and re-engineer them to target cancer. Early immunotherapy treatment put 93% of kids into complete remission. But nearly half of them relapsed.

"We're creating new apps for the T-cells," said Dr. Michael Jensen, Director of the Ben Towne Center. "It's kind of like software evolution where there's a bug in the program and you work out that bug and you have version 2.0. We're now at version 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 for childhood leukemia."

In this latest version just launched, T-cells will have two targets on the cancer instead of one. It could be the method that saves Lucy's life.

"This is our best option," Watters said. "And I can't stress that enough. Five years ago, we would have had zero options."

Instead, Lucy's family has hope that the next breakthrough will mean the end of leukemia. That's the goal, not just for Lucy, but all children.

"Our immediate goal is to save the lives of kids who've gone through all these treatments and have no options left," said Jensen. "But our real goal is to be able to take the best version of this therapy and to be able to use it at the time of diagnosis. Your entire leukemia therapy could be over in two weeks as opposed to two to three years. That's where the real payload, the real benefit to children in the future comes. And that's where we're headed."

Seattle Children's recently announced an ambitious $1 billion fundraising campaign, with half the money earmarked for immunotherapy. Jensen said without philanthropy, immunotherapy would still be an idea in the lab, instead of treating children and saving lives.


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