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How one little girl could change the face of the fight against leukaemia

Video report from ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie

"Where are the tissues?" jokes Lisa. "This is the room where they always give us the bad news."

But today there is no bad news. On her knee, her one-year-old daughter Layla is taking her first TV appearance in her stride. Playing with a book, pouting for the camera and pushing her big sister Reya out of shot.

We are in the same side room at Great Ormond Street Hospital where in June, doctors had said there was no more they could do to stop the aggressive leukaemia Layla had been fighting since she was three months old.

After several rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, they had run out of treatments. The doctors suggested they take her home to give her palliative care.

But Layla's parents were adamant. They wanted to do something - anything - to save their little girl.

"Palliative care was not an option for me as a parent," explained her dad, Ashleigh. "That's not an option - I would try anything for my child."

Layla's doctor, Director of Bone Marrow Transplant at GOSH Professor Paul Veys, describes what happened next as a "really strange sequence of events".

A team at University College London's Institute of Child Health next door to the hospital were in the early stages of developing an experimental treatment.

It was so new it had only ever been tested in the lab, and never used in humans. But with no other hope of a cure for Layla, the doctors and research team decided to offer her parents the chance to try it.

They had no idea whether it would work. Or how it would affect her.

"The treatment may make her really sick, she may die from the treatment, the treatment can have really bad side-effects - they just didn't know, they'd never used the treatment before and if we wanted to try a curative option then we could do it but it's just not guaranteed, nobody knew," said Lisa.

In the body, special cells called T-cells are designed to seek out and fight infection and cancer. But leukaemia cells learn to hide from them.

The treatment given to Layla was developed using T-cells from an unmatched donor. Two genes were removed to stop them being rejected or attacking her body, and another gene was added to enable the T-cell to see and target the leukaemia.

It only took minutes to give Layla the tiny 1ml dose of modified cells. The results astonished everybody.

"Very surprisingly they seemed to have a very quick effect on the leukaemia which disappeared fairly rapidly and then really for some months we were so surprised we didn't really know what to do...so we just followed her week by week," says Professor Veys.

"It is extraordinary that the cells did persist and were able to remove her disease without making her that sick...so to be able to get rid of the disease to this point and have her well is almost unbelievable."

At one point, doctors said there was nothing more they could do to help Layla. Credit: GOSH

This is pioneering stuff, which could potentially change the way leukaemia and other cancers are treated. But so far only Layla has had the treatment - Professor Veys says full clinical trials will begin next year.

"To have a weapon like this which can cure this disease which we've just not had before is absolutely fabulous but we need to now learn how to use it properly. Layla has taught us hugely...which means for the next patient we'll understand a lot more before we start."

Her mum and dad say they did what any parent would do, but they still can't quite believe their little girl is out of hospital, and paving the way for new medical treatments.

"And we did it and Layla's here today - just healthy and just like any other child - energetic, she keeps us up late at night and gets us up early in the morning and yes, she's..." Lisa pauses and smiles at her daughter in the room where she has cried so many tears. "Layla's just magic."

Doctors have been amazed by the results of the treatment. Credit: GOSH