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Now streaming: award-winning documentary on Penn-developed transformative CAR T cell cancer cure

The award-winning documentary “Of Medicine and Miracles” details the emotional journey of one family alongside a team of Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) doctors who developed a revolutionary cancer cure with CAR T cell therapy technology and is now available to watch for the first time on major streaming platforms, including Apple TV+, Amazon, Google Play, and Vimeo on Demand.

Watch the "Of Medicine and Miracles" trailer here.

Documenting Penn’s development of a new cancer cure 

The movie poster of the documentary "Of Medicine and Miracles," with a close up photo of Carl June looking into a microscope.

The film gives an intimate look at the Whitehead family’s quest to save their daughter, Emily, from a deadly leukemia and the Penn research team, led by Carl June, MD, that relentlessly worked for decades to develop what’s now known as CAR T cell therapy, a treatment approach that reprograms patients’ own immune cells to kill their cancer. In 2012, six-year-old Emily was on the verge of death from an aggressive form of leukemia, when—after a small group of adults with a different type of leukemia had received an experimental CAR T cell therapy as part of a Penn Medicine clinical trial— she became the first pediatric patient to receive CAR T cell therapy. The treatment cured her cancer and, since its 2017 FDA approval as the first personalized cellular therapy for cancer, has saved the lives of thousands of patients, sparking an entirely new field of cancer research across the world. 

From Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman and Oscar-nominated producer Robin Honan, “Of Medicine and Miracles” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews and has received numerous awards as it was shown on festival screens across the nation. The film “tugs on the heartstrings and opens the mind,” proclaimed The Hollywood Reporter, while IndieWire praised the filmmakers’ focus on teasing out the story of “the crucial role that emotion can play in the advancement of science.” 

“Of Medicine and Miracles” was 10 years in the making, building on the 2012 short film “Fire with Fire,” which went viral after being posted on Upworthy, a website dedicated to positive storytelling. The poignant, yet uplifting story is told through home videos from the Whitehead family and interviews with Emily’s parents and a team of Penn Medicine and CHOP doctors and researchers, including June, who candidly shares his personal connection to cancer and motivation for doggedly pursuing his research despite setbacks and initial skepticism from the oncology field at large. 

In addition to June, who is the director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies and the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, “Of Medicine and Miracles” also features Penn Medicine’s Bruce Levine, PhD, the Barbara and Edward Netter Professor in Cancer Gene Therapy and the Founding Director of the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, and David Porter, MD, director of Cell Therapy and Transplant in the Abramson Cancer Center and the Jodi Fischer Horowitz Professor in Leukemia Care Excellence. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia physicians Stephan Grupp, MD, PhD, Section Chief of the Cellular Therapy and Transplant Section and Inaugural Director of the Susan S. and Stephen P. Kelly Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, and Susan Rheingold, MD, Medical Director of the Oncology Outpatient Clinic are also highlighted.

Where are they now? The film ends, but the story kept going. 

The film closes on a hopeful note. Against all odds, Emily’s cancer was eradicated. But it would be another five years before enough patients were treated in clinical trials and results paved the path for the therapy’s FDA approval. That summer, TIME magazine called CAR T cell therapy “cancer’s newest miracle cure,” and a raft of news coverage traced its path from far-fetched concept to reality as a “true living drug.”

“The film captured very realistically those initial first steps in CAR T cell therapy, but it's hard to believe from watching it where we actually are now and just how far we’ve come,” June said. “CAR T cell therapy is now an everyday treatment here in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. There are thousands of patients being treated every year, and the new advancements are almost unbelievable.”

Beyond leukemia: Expanding the reach of CAR T cell therapy 

Six different CAR T cell therapies are now approved in the United States to treat various forms of blood cancers, with more than 1,000 clinical trials in progress worldwide testing new and different forms of the therapy in many different cancer types. June has been honored with the world’s largest science award, the Breakthrough Prize and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research, among other accolades, for his role in pioneering CAR T cell therapy. 

In March 2024, Penn Medicine researchers reported some of the first meaningful results for using CAR T cell therapy to treat a solid tumor—glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. And scientists at Penn and across world are working to apply different types of CAR T cell therapies to other conditions, such as autoimmune diseases like lupus and cardiac disease. Click here to support the innovative research taking place at Abramson Cancer Center.

Some of the earliest patients treated with CAR T cell therapy have now been cancer-free for more than a decade, proving its moniker as a “living drug.” As for Emily herself, the events of the film are a distant memory, and she’s come full circle, starting at the University of Pennsylvania as a college student in fall 2023.

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