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FDA Panel Approves Immunotherapy Program To Fight Cancer

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A new era in the war against cancer has begun.

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported Thursday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has just unanimously recommended the approval of the first-ever living drug to fight leukemia.

The drug turns the patient's own immune system against the cancer.

Emily Whitehead looks like your typical 12-year-old girl – right now. But five years ago, she was dying of cancer.

Kashaun Lawhorn, 7, and Emma Collins, 16, were facing the same fate. They were battling leukemia and traditional treatments had failed.

"Nothing worked," Emily said.

But then came a second chance -- a game-changing experimental therapy that utilized their own bodies' immune systems to kill the cancer.

"We do have her counts back and they look perfect," said Dr. Stephan Grupp.

And now, thanks to a unanimous vote of an FDA expert advisory panel on Wednesday, the kids will not be the only ones to benefit.

"Ten years ago, I don't think anybody thought you could productively use the immune system to fight cancer," Grupp said.

Grupp conducted the clinical trial for this revolutionary treatment called "CAR-T Therapy."

"Now, in addition to chemo, radiation and surgery, this is the fourth thing – immunotherapy," he said.

In the lab, the patient's own immune T-cells are genetically modified by a virus to recognize the patient's cancer. Then, those custom-made white blood cells are given back to the patient.

A single dose has brought long-term remissions in more than 82 percent of the most seriously ill patients treated.

"What happens is that the T-cells go all around the body and when they find something that they recognize, like the B-cell leukemia, they kill that off," said Dr. Shannon Maude of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Better yet, some of the CAR T-cells "remember" what the leukemia looks like to fight any recurrence.

"A onetime treatment can certainly lead to at least five years of survival, and we hope can lead to cures," said Dr. Stephen Hunger, chief of oncology at CHOP.

There could be cures for thousands of children around the world, like Emily.

"Now I'm five years cancer free," Emily said.

CAR-T therapy can have serious side effects, but the children who got it were literally on death's doorstep.

It is mainly effective against leukemia and lymphoma, but researchers are working to use it against so-called solid tumors such as breast, colon, and lung.

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