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11-year-old cancer survivor thriving after treatment supported by Alex's Lemonade Stand

11-year-old cancer survivor thriving after being first baby in world to undergo CAR T-cell therapy
11-year-old cancer survivor thriving after being first baby in world to undergo CAR T-cell therapy 04:06

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The family of a child fighting pediatric cancer was out of options when a doctor proposed a treatment that sounded like it was straight out of a science-fiction movie. 

Now 11-year-old Greta Oberhofer has a pretty packed schedule filled with playing with her dog Opie, riding horses and studying her favorite subject, math. While the fifth-grader does not think too much about the time she was battling cancer at just three months old, her mother Maggie Oberhofer does.

"Any mom would know something wasn't right. She was just not keeping anything down and running a fever for weeks," Maggie said. "We had been in and out of the pediatrician's office and we just weren't sure what it was. Eventually, I took her in again and they felt her liver and felt that it was really enlarged."

She later received a heart-wrenching diagnosis: leukemia.

"I was angry, terrified, obviously. But when you hear Leukemia, I mean, there's a lot of hope to be had for Leukemia, but unfortunately, Greta had a kind that was incredibly aggressive," Maggie explained. 

They decided to go straight to a bone marrow transplant to try to save Greta. Maggie said Greta's sister, who was 2 years old at the time, was a match. 

"I think it was, she was 8 months when she went through a bone marrow transplant. And they're not easy at any age, but at eight months, they're really hard," Maggie said.

The transplant didn't go well, leading Greta to spend more than a month in intensive care. She then relapsed right after her first birthday. 

That is when Dr. Rebecca Gardner, a pediatric oncologist, suggested the Oberhofers bring Greta to Seattle Children's Hospital for something called CAR T-Cell Therapy. It was a cancer trial supported by Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.

"It was an option, but so was hospice," said Maggie. "So we had a really horrible weekend where we kind of considered both things. We talked to Dr. Gardner, who was leading the trial up in Seattle, and ultimately, she just said, 'just come hear what I have to say.'"

Greta then became the first baby in the world to receive what are known as CAR T-cells.

"What CAR T-cell therapy does, is it takes the patient's T-cells from their body, not all of them, but just a little sampling, and then reengineers them, or reprograms them, so they can recognize the cancer cell as being bad," Dr. Gardner said. "And then when they're infused back into the patient, those T-cells can kind of scour your body and find the cancer cells and get rid of the cancer cells.

Dr. Gardner hoped the therapy would be what is called a "living therapy." This means if the cancer were ever to come back, the CAR T-cells would stop the cells from spreading.

Alex's Lemonade Stand found the Oberhofers a place to stay in Seattle. Within days of starting the trial, Greta developed a fever, a sign that the immunotherapy was working. Her mother said they watched for neurological side effects after Greta's fever broke. There were none. 

Dr. Gardner was involved from the start of this life-changing trial. She is now with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, working to make this immunotherapy treatment more accessible to children. 

"Alex's Lemonade Stand is critical to all these endeavors," Dr. Gardner said. 

"Dr. Gardner's, my family aside, my favorite person on earth, she truly is," said Maggie. She knew all the right things to say to me to get me at a time where I was just in a panic."

"Just so thankful for who she is as a person, as a doctor, and for her knowledge and guidance through this," Maggie added.

CBS Philadelphia's 18th annual "Alex Scott: A Stand for Hope Telethon" kicks off Thursday, June 20 to raise money and awareness in the fight against childhood cancer to help other kids just like Greta. 

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