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Pioneering work in treating a baby's leukaemia

When the doctors realised that the established treatment didn´t work for the little girl, they were allowed to try out a new treatment technique where changes were made to the baby's DNA.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is one of the most common childhood cancers and the outlook for being cured is usually very good at around 85%. However, not all children respond well to existing treatment, which was the case with a little girl called Layla who developed the disease when she was only 5 months old.

When the doctors realised that the established treatment didn’t work for the little girl, they were allowed to try out a new treatment technique that had previously only been tested on mice. The treatment is known as ‘genome editing’ and is a technique where changes are made to an individual’s DNA. DNA is the material that we inherit from our parents and makes us who we are. It is inside all the cells in our body (like a twisted ladder) and sections of the ‘DNA ladder’ are called genes. The genes instruct the cells on how to behave, so for example some of the genes inside cells of our immune system will tell that part of the immune system to find and destroy any abnormal cells in our body, for instance cancer cells. Sometimes the immune system needs help to find or destroy the cancer cells and lots of research go on to find out ways of boosting the immune system to make it work better by either being stronger or becoming better at finding and destroying cancer cells.

In Layla’s case, the doctors were able to try one of those new techniques that hadn’t been used before and a particular type of her immune cells called T-cells were changed (manipulated) to make them better at finding and destroying the abnormal leukaemia cells in her body. Layla responded really well to the new treatment and she was able to go home from the hospital. Because this is a new treatment and this happened just recently it is too early to say whether Layla has been completely cured from the cancer. But it’s certainly a very positive story of how research can help finding new treatments that may help many more people in the future. Read more on the NHS Choices website.

This article was first published : 18.11.2015

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