This Halloween marked a monumental milestone for 7-year-old Erin Cross. For the first time in Erin’s life, she was healthy enough to go trick-or-treating. And her costume of choice – an old woman – held a special meaning for her family.
Two years ago, Erin’s family was facing the devastating reality that they may never see her grow up. But today, she’s in remission thanks to a groundbreaking immunotherapy clinical trial at Seattle Children’s. Her family finally has the chance to envision her long life ahead, a life filled with normal things, like trick-or-treating and playing with other kids.
“Erin has been so incredibly brave,” said her mother, Sarah Cross. “For us, normal was being in the hospital. Today, she’s cancer-free and getting back to normal life.”
A long journey, a bright future
At age 2, Erin was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells. Initial cancer treatments put Erin into remission, but in 2016, Erin’s family received the heartbreaking news that she had relapsed.
They had exhausted every treatment option available near their hometown of Chester, England. After extensive research, Sarah found Seattle Children’s Pediatric Leukemia Adoptive Therapy (PLAT-02) clinical trial for children and young adults with relapsed or refractory ALL who are not likely to survive with current treatments. As their last hope, the family contacted Seattle Children’s and applied for the clinical trial.
The PLAT-02 chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapy trial harnesses a patient’s own immune system to seek and destroy cancer. After seeing promising results in phase 1 of the trial with 93% of patients achieving complete initial remission, researchers at Seattle Children’s embarked on a quest to reduce the rate of relapse following the experimental therapy, which is about 50%. Today, that quest is moving forward. Seattle Children’s has continued to improve the therapy and is opening PLAT-05, the first CAR T-cell trial in the U.S. for children and young adults to target two separate proteins expressed by some leukemia cells simultaneously.
“Seattle Children’s threw us a lifeline,” said Sarah. “We knew we had to get her there. We moved mountains to get Erin to Seattle.”
In July 2016, Erin’s family arrived in Seattle for the trial. According to Erin’s parents, they immediately felt at home.
“It wasn’t a coincidence we found Seattle Children’s,” said Antony, Erin’s dad. “As soon as we walked into the hospital, we knew it was the place we were supposed to be.”
“We had confidence the treatment would work,” said Sarah. “Dr. Gardner looked after us at a time when we were really vulnerable.”
Harnessing Erin’s immune system
In August, Erin’s T cells were reprogrammed to be able to seek and destroy cancer cells wherever they were hiding in her body. A few weeks later, they were reinfused back into her body to fight the cancer cells, similar to how a person’s immune system fights a virus.
The family waited for news as Erin’s T cells attacked the cancer cells. On Sept. 21, 2016, the family received a phone call from Gardner.
“I still remember that morning really well,” said Antony. “Sarah and I were quite apprehensive to hear the results. Erin and I were playing when the phone went off. I could see it was from Seattle Children’s. I knew Sarah wanted to take the call, so against every instinct in my body, I let it go.”
Minutes later, Sarah came walking into the room, tears in her eyes.
“We knew they would either tell us there was no more hope, or that she’d have a chance at a normal life,” said Sarah.
One question plagued their minds: did the therapy work?
The voice on the other end had a simple and life-altering answer: Yes.
“We cried for quite a long time that day,” said Sarah. “They were tears of relief.”
There was no detectable cancer. Erin was in remission.
A year later, Erin is still in remission and enjoying life. According to her mother, “She’s the life of the party.”
Erin was recently recognized for her bravery, and had the honor of being selected among hundreds of nominations as a winner of the prestigious 2017 WellChild Awards in London. As a part of the award, she even got to meet Prince Harry, more than once.
“She’s met him five times,” said Sarah. “Erin likes to say she’s met him more than his girlfriend.”
Erin made more international headlines the day after the WellChild award ceremony. During a live interview with ITV News, a television station in England, she asked the reporter a poignant question. “Are you single?” She was asking for a friend.
“She captured the heart of the nation with that question,” said Antony. “She’s such a character. It should have been no surprise. It was a very Erin thing to ask.”
Getting back to normal life
More than anything, Erin’s family is looking forward to her future.
“We want her to have a normal life,” said Sarah.
Attending school full time and playing with friends wasn’t possible before, but now that Erin is doing so well, she’s ready to get back to doing things children her age do.
“Erin is craving normality,” said Antony. “She’s been isolated for quite a while. She’s spent so much time with us, I’m sure she wants to be around other children.”
Advancing treatment options
The Cross family hopes to visit Seattle again. Sarah says she can’t thank the hospital enough for what they’ve done for Erin.
“We miss everyone terribly,” said Sarah. “Seattle is our second home. We’ve been homesick.”
For Antony, he says he still can’t believe the journey their family has been through. He’s looking forward to a day when no child has to battle cancer.
“It will be a day to celebrate,” said Antony. “Cancer robs children of their lives. Childhood cancer is so unfair.”
Sarah and Antony are hopeful a future without cancer is on the horizon.
“Without Seattle Children’s, Erin wouldn’t be here today,” said Antony. “If Erin’s story can help save another child, that’s our hope. The treatment is in its infancy, but it has so much promise. I would recommend it with my hand on my heart.”
Erin was one of the pioneering patients in the PLAT trials, helping to pave the way for future patients like her. Today, her cancer is in the past and her future is bright.
“She’s a hero,” said Sarah.
Gardner agrees with that sentiment.
“It is an honor to be involved with patients and their families as we work toward developing this therapy to the point that it leads toward a cure for all kids with cancer,” said Gardner. “Because of brave children like Erin, we believe in a world where treatment for childhood cancer is just a blip in the road rather than a life-altering treatment.”
For more information on immunotherapy research trials at Seattle Children’s, please call (206) 987-2106 or email CBDCintake@seattlechildrens.org.
Learn more about all of Seattle Children’s PLAT clinical trials.
In recognizing that philanthropy has fueled rapid advances in T-cell therapy, delivering on the promise and power of immunotherapy is one of the key pillars of It Starts With Yes: The Campaign for Seattle Children’s. The campaign is a bold initiative to partner with our community and deliver on our shared vision to transform children’s health for generations to come. In addition to the focus on immunotherapy, the campaign will advance our core mission to care for every child, help us unlock the mysteries of the developing brain, and launch a new era for community health and wellness. Help us turn a promising possibility into a life-saving cure for children around the world.