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Fighting for a chance against AIDS.

Jeff Getty was living on borrowed time when he took part in a radical experiment last December.

"I'm a soldier fighting a war," Getty told Science World. His enemy: AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the fatal disease caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). The virus attacks and destroys the body's disease-fighting white blood cells, leaving the immune system deficient, or unable to fend off countless infections and diseases. When patients begin to succumb to these invaders, they are said to have AIDS.

Right now, there is no cure for AIDS. Most patients die of their infections. But Getty - who was first infected 15 years ago and had already lived longer than many people expected - wanted to change that. That's why he volunteered for an experimental treatment: a bone marrow transplant from a baboon.


The idea behind the experiment was to replenish Getty's depleted army of white blood cells. Like all blood cells, white blood cells form in bone marrow, a fatty tissue that fills the hollow spaces inside bones. Ideally, transplanted bone marrow would supply the needed disease-fighting cells.

But using human bone marrow doesn't work very well, says Dr. Suzanne Ildstad, who designed the experiment. Human white blood cells are the very cells the AIDS virus attacks. Giving a patient more white cells doesn't help battle the virus or repair a damaged immune system in the long run.

That's why Dr. Ildstad proposed a transplant using bone marrow from a baboon. According to Dr. Ildstad, HIV can't infect baboon cells and baboons don't get AIDS. So baboon-cell reinforcements might help battle HIV and restore Getty's immune system. she reasoned. (By contrast, the drugs currently used to treat AIDS merely slow the rate of immune-system destruction.)


Many scientists have doubts about the effectiveness of such cross-species transplants.

"The chance of it working is so small," says Dr. Mark Feinberg of the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health. One potential problem: Getty's immune system might recognize the transplanted baboon cells as "invaders" and try to attack them. This problem, called immune rejection, is common with transplants - even when the donor is human. There was also a chance that the baboon immune cells would identify Getty's body tissues as "foreign" and try to destroy them.

Other scientists had more-dire predictions: The experiment could start an epidemic, or outbreak, of another disease. Getty might pick up a disease from the baboon bone marrow and spread it to other humans, they warned. After all, diseases have "jumped" from animals to humans before. For example, scientists say HIV probably spread to humans from monkeys; swine flu came from pigs.

"It only takes one transmission from one baboon to a human to start an epidemic," says Dr. Jonathan Allan of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. "We're risking the public health."

But most researchers agreed that if Getty did pick up a disease, chances were that it could only be passed to someone else the way AIDS is - through the exchange of blood or other body fluids. And Getty had been avoiding that kind of contact ever since he found out he was infected with HIV.

In the end, Dr. Ildstad and others managed to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which had to approve the experiment, that no dire consequences would result.



On December 14, 1995, Getty sat nervously in a San Francisco hospital as purified baboon bone marrow cells dripped into one of his veins.

"It was scary," Getty recalled when SW spoke with him in February. Prior to the transplant, he had received radiation treatments and chemotherapy (strong drugs) to suppress his immune system. Those treatments were supposed to reduce his chances of rejecting the transplant. But in his weakened state, Getty would also be less able to fight off any baboon diseases - or baboon immune cells attempting to destroy his body.

"My life, passed before my eyes. while they were putting the bone marrow into me." Getty told SW. "But I didn't have any second thoughts. I wanted to see this thing through."


Eight weeks later, Getty was alive and feeling better than he had in years. His immune system cells had increased in number. His chronic asthma had cleared up. And doctors found no evidence that he had picked up a baboon disease.

But they didn't find any baboon immune cells either. And that means Getty may not have benefited as a result of the transplant.

It could be that Getty's immune system destroyed the baboon cells. Or maybe the baboon cells were there in numbers too low for tests to detect. Dr. Ildstad said it was still too early to say for sure.

Meanwhile, doctors were trying to figure out if something else they did as part of the experiment may have improved Getty's health. Maybe the chemotherapy and radiation treatments they used to suppress Getty's immune system zapped some of the HIV in his body.

Getty said he would be satisfied if any new AIDS information came to light as a result of the experiment. Sometimes when you do unknown things," he said, "you find out things you weren't even expecting to find out." And the more we know, the more likely we'll be to win the war against AIDS.
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Title Annotation:Jerry Getty volunteered for an experiment to see if baboon bone marrow transplants can help people with AIDS
Author:Carson, Mary Kay
Publication:Science World
Date:May 3, 1996
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