David Vetter, the Bubble Boy, lived in a unique plastic bubble, designed for him by NASA because he had a rare genetic disease. Before we learn about the unlucky boy, let me introduce you to the SCID disease and its treatment.
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency
What is SCID?
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) is a rare genetic disease that compromises the body’s immune system. There are at least nine mutations that contribute to it, and it is perilous. Children born with this disease have defective B-lymphocytes and T- helper cells. The former is responsible for secreting antibodies, whereas the latter activates the immune cells. Therefore, if those cells can’t function properly, the organism can’t protect itself from any disease.
The most common treatment for SCID is bone marrow transplant because that’s where blood cells, including T-helper cells and lymphocytes, are born. The donor must be a genetic match f0r the patient or a half-match (either parent). Recently, this method has been very successful, and until the transplant, children live in special sterile plastic bubbles, protected from the microbes in the air. They can’t leave the bubble, and nothing unsterilized can’t get inside; otherwise, the child would catch an infection and die.
The Life of the Bubble Boy
Living in the Bubble
David Vetter was born in 1971; his parents had already had a son, who died from SCID at seven months old. There was a 50/50 chance that another son would be born with the same disease. The sterile cocoon had been prepared for David before birth. That’s where he spent most of his life.
He had a team of specialists and concerned parents who tried to give him as much everyday life as possible, including a playroom, education, and friends. His friend even arranged a special showing of The Return of the Jedi, so that David could watch it in the movie theatre. In 1977 NASA designed a special plastic suit connected to the bubble, though David only wore it a couple of times.
Looking for the Cure
David’s parents spent all his life looking for a cure, spending over 1.3 million dollars. Finally, they decided to do a bone marrow transplant from David’s sister Katherine. The transplantation was successful, though it later turned out Katherine was not a match for her brother. Moreover, her bone marrow contained the Epstein-Barr virus, a type of herpes. After a few months, David got sick with glandular fever and died two weeks later. He was twelve years old. His psychologist Mary Murphy wrote a book called Bursting the Bubble: The Tortured Life and Untimely Death of David Vetter, published in 2019.
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Research on SCID
Bone marrow transplant is still the most popular form of treatment for SCID. New methods include transplantation to the fetus to grow its immune system before birth; however, that always comes with many complications. The most revolutionary way is gene therapy. In 1990 doctors tried to cure another Bubble Child- Ashanthi DeSilva. Doctors created a virus with a healthy version of her defective gene. Then, they collected Ashanthi’s blood sample, isolated white blood cells, and infected them with a virus. They injected the cells back into her body, where they became creating functional enzymes. Since then, 17 children successfully went through gene therapy.