In 1947, children who developed acute lymphocytic leukemia died. Dr. Sidney Farber, a pathologist at Boston Children's Hospital, was so distressed doing autopsies on these children that he moved into the clinic and, against the advice of more conservative colleagues, began treating children with aminopterin, a highly toxic drug that starved their cancerous white blood cells of critical nutrients.
Miraculously, for many the disease went into remission, only to recur months later. But Dr. Farber's last-ditch attempt to save these children began an era of ultimately remarkable progress — decades of clinical trials of progressively complex treatments that now cure nearly 90 percent of children with leukemia.
Olivia Blair of Baltimore, who will be 3 in May, is showing the benefits of this progress. After her T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia was diagnosed when she was 17 months old, Olivia has weathered more than a year of treatment at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center with about 15 different drugs plus radiation to her brain and spine.
With her disease undetectable months later, she is now in a study of an experimental drug to help maintain the remission and is back to a near-normal childhood, a thriving, happy toddler who plays with other children, goes to day care and accompanies her mother grocery shopping.
Kelly Blair, Olivia's mother, said, "It was very hard for us to decide to participate in the new study, but we finally thought that even if it didn't help Olivia, it's going to help other kids."
The tortuous road to the kind of treatments now saving more than half of all cancer patients is graphically depicted in a six-hour series, "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," produced by Ken Burns, to be broadcast on public television (PBS) March 30, March 31 and April 1.