David Vetter, the bubble boy

T cells are a class of white blood cells without which a human being usually cannot survive. An exception to this was David Vetter, a boy who lived 12 years without T cells. This was only possible because he lived all this time in a sterile environment, a plastic bubble. For this reason he became known as the bubble boy. The disease which he suffered from is called SCID, severe combined immunodeficiency, and it corresponds to having no T cells. The most common form of this is due to a mutation on the X chromosome and as a result it usually affects males. The effects set in a few months after birth. The mutation leads to a lack of the \gamma chain of the IL-2 receptor. In fact this chain occurs in several cytokine receptors and is therefore called the ‘common chain’. Probably the key to the negative effects caused by its lack in SCID patients is the resulting lack of the receptor for IL-7, which is important for T cell development. SCID patients have a normal number of B cells but very few antibodies due to the lack of support by helper T cells. Thus in the end they lack both the immunity usually provided by T cells and that usually provided by B cells. This is the reason for the description ‘combined immunodeficiency’. I got the information on this theme which follows mainly from two sources. The first is a documentary film ‘Bodyshock – The Boy in the Bubble’ about David Vetter produced by Channel 4 and available on Youtube. (There are also less serious films on this subject, including one featuring John Travolta.) The second is the chapter on X-linked SCID in the book ‘Case Studies in Immunology’ by Raif Geha and Luigi Notarangelo. I find this book a wonderful resource for learning about immunology. It links general theory to the case history of specific patients.

David Vetter had an older brother who also suffered from SCID and died of infection very young. Thus his parents and their doctors were warned. The brother was given a bone marrow transplant from his sister, who had the necessary tissue compatibility. Unfortunately this did not save him, presumably because he had already been exposed to too many infections by the time it was carried out. The parents decided to have another child, knowing that if it was a boy the chances of another case of SCID were 50%. Their doctors had a hope of being able to save the life of such a child by isolating him and then giving him a bone marrow transplant before he had been exposed to infections. The parents very soon had another child, it was a boy, he had SCID. The child was put into a sterile plastic bubble immediately after birth. Unfortunately it turned out that the planned bone marrow donor, David’s sister, was not a good match for him. It was necessary to wait and hope for an alternative donor. This hope was not fulfilled and David had to stay in the bubble. This had not been planned and it must be asked whether the doctors involved had really thought through what would happen if the optimal variant they had thought of did not work out.

At one point David started making punctures in his bubble as a way of attracting attention. Then it was explained to him what his situation was and why he must not damage the bubble. Later there was a kind of space suit produced for him by NASA which allowed him to move around outside his home. He only used it six times since he was too afraid there could be an accident. His physical health was good but understandably his psychological situation was difficult. New ideas in the practise of bone marrow transplantation indicated that it might be possible to use donors with a lesser degree of compatibility. On this basis David was given a transplant with his sister as the donor. It was not noticed that her bone marrow was infected with Epstein-Barr virus. As a result David got Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of cancer which can be caused by that virus. (Compare what I wrote about this role of EBV here.) He died a few months after the operation, at the age of 12. Since that time treatment techniques have improved. The patient whose case is described in the book of Geha and Notarangelo had a successful bone marrow transplant (with his mother as donor). Unfortunately his lack of antibodies was not cured but this can be controlled with injections of immunoglobulin once every three weeks.

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