Greta Oberhofer with her parents Andy and Maggie and her sister Charlotte.

Greta Oberhofer with her parents Andy and Maggie and her sister Charlotte.

In 2014, Andy and Maggie Oberhofer, of Portland, Ore., faced the most difficult dilemma of their lives. Their baby daughter, Greta, was dying. She had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was just three months old and standard treatments were not working. Her family prepared for the worst.

“Greta had barely survived chemotherapy and a transplant,” Andy Oberhofer said. “We didn’t want her to suffer any more if she couldn’t be cured. We found ourselves considering end-of-life care for our 1-year-old daughter.”

But then, Greta’s family found hope. Greta qualified for a cancer immunotherapy trial at Seattle Children’s Hospital designed to treat leukemia patients who have relapsed after a transplant. This innovative technology reprograms the body’s T cells and reintroduces them into the immune system, where they hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

“Immunotherapy just made sense to us,” said Oberhofer. “We believed it could work.”

Greta was infused with her reprogrammed T cells and just weeks later, she was in remission. Her hair soon grew back and she took her first wobbly steps shortly after. Today, she is indistinguishable from any other child her age.

“Nine months ago we thought we were going to lose our daughter,” Maggie Oberhofer said. “Today, she’s living a healthy, happy life, thanks to Seattle Children’s.”

A cure for childhood cancer?

Drs. Mike Jensen and Rebecca Gardner are leading efforts to treat childhood cancer using the body's immune system.

Drs. Mike Jensen and Rebecca Gardner are leading efforts to treat childhood cancer using the body’s immune system.

Developed at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, immunotherapy reduces the need for chemotherapy and radiation, along with the harsh side effects that often accompany those treatments. Immunotherapy has shown tremendous progress in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in patients who have relapsed one or more times. In fact, scientists believe it has the ability to cure some types of childhood cancer in the next 5 to 10 years.

“In this population of patients with relapsed and chemotherapy-resistant leukemia, a treatment with a 20 percent response rate would be considered a success,” said Dr. Rebecca Gardner, an oncologist at Seattle Children’s and lead investigator on the immunotherapy trial for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “Having 91 percent of patients achieve remission is incredible, but we will keep working until we have 100 percent in remission.”

Today, Greta is a happy, healthy 21-month-old in remission.

Today, Greta is a happy, healthy 21-month-old in remission.

The success of immunotherapy in treating leukemia has propelled clinical trials for other types of cancer. Dr. Julie Park, an oncologist at Seattle Children’s and investigator in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research, is enrolling patients in a reprogrammed T-cell immunotherapy trial for neuroblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of childhood cancer.

“Our goal is to eventually offer immunotherapy to patients when they are first diagnosed with cancer,” said Dr. Mike Jensen, director of Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research and one of the pioneers of T-cell immunotherapy. “We don’t just want to cure kids of cancer; we want to cure them without transplants or prolonged chemotherapy and radiation.”

For more information on immunotherapy research trials at Seattle Children’s, please call (206) 987-2106 or email immunotherapy@seattlechildrens.org.

Resources:

See more images of Greta Oberhofer in our online Flickr gallery.