05:08pm Saturday 11 July 2020

Ken Burns Cancer Documentary to Feature Story of First Pediatric Patient to Receive Penn's Modified T Cell Therapy for Leukemia

PHILADELPHIA – The story of the first pediatric patient to receive an experimental cellular therapy developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania will be featured in this week’s PBS documentary, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” The three-part film, presented by famed documentarian Ken Burns, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee.

It traces the history of cancer research and care, from pivotal breakthroughs in the understanding of cancer genetics to the development of modern-day therapies that turn patients’ immune systems against their cancers. Mukherjee’s book was published in 2010, about a year before the Penn team published their first results of a personalized cellular therapy trial in which patients received modified versions of their own immune cells, programmed in a Penn laboratory to hunt and destroy their cancer cells. All three patients in that group – adults who had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – responded to the therapy. The two patients who experienced complete remissions remain healthy today, nearly five years later.

In early 2012, six-year-old Emily Whitehead became the first pediatric patient and the first patient with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) to receive the investigational therapy. Her dramatic story – including the discovery of a drug that is now used to treat the serious immune reaction that the modified cells produce as they begin destroying cancer cells in the body – anchors the final night of the film. Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of translational research in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, and Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, the Yetta Deitch Novotny Professor of Pediatrics and director of Translational Research in the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, are featured in the film, along with Emily and her parents, Tom and Kari Whitehead.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration awarded this treatment the Breakthrough Therapy designation in the summer of 2014  for the treatment of relapsed and refractory adult and pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The investigational therapy, known as CTL019, is the first personalized cellular therapy for the treatment of cancer to receive this important classification.

“Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” airs on PBS affiliates across the United States at 9 p.m. for three consecutive evenings, beginning tonight. 

Learn more about the film and watch trailers and bonus content at www.cancerfilms.org, and Tweet using #cancerfilm. Follow @PennMedNews during the April 1st broadcast for links that will take viewers deeper into the stories and the science behind the development of Penn’s personalized cellular cancer therapy.


Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report‘s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $409 million awarded in the 2014 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania — recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital — the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2014, Penn Medicine provided $771 million to benefit our community.

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