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“Bubble Boy” dies after unsuccessful bone marrow transplant

David Vetter (1971 – 1984)

NASA scientists created the environment that allowed David Vetter to live on earth within a sterile bubble-like chamber based on technology designed to isolate moon rocks from germs and Earth atmosphere.

David was born 21 September 1971 with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), severe defect in both the T- & B-lymphocyte systems. He died on 22 February 1984.

David’s brother, born in 1970, also had SCID and died at six months; the most common form of SCID affects only males.

“Encouraged by their doctor, who was a catholic monk,” the Vetter’s tried again, “prepared to place their child in sterile isolation immediately following birth and keep him isolated until a cure for SCID could be found. [1]”

Twenty seconds after birth, doctors placed David in a plastic isolator bubble. He would remain in a bubble or space suit for the remainder of his life.

Thus his nickname, “Bubble Boy.”

David died four months after receiving a bone marrow transfusion from his sister. He developed lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which doctors would later determine was introduced into his body by the Epstein-Barr virus.

According to the Washington Post: “Because he was brought up in a sterile environment, his death allowed researchers to confirm a long-standing hypothesis that Epstein-Barr can cause cancer.”

Today “babies who test positive for SCID can be given bone marrow transplants and have a chance of normal, productive lives,” according to WNYC. And CBS notes that this therapy rests “in part [on] David’s own blood cells.”

You won’t see many news stories raise ethical questions either during his life or after his death. The lone exception in my review was this from the Washington Post:

Raising a child in plastic isolation was developmentally risky and ethically questionable. But exposing David to the outside world meant death. Doctors thought a cure was just around the corner. Meanwhile, David became a long-term research subject.

However, according to Michael P. Oman-Reagan, anthropologist and Vanier Scholar at Memorial University and an affiliated researcher at the University of Victoria, Canada [1]:

David Vetter was born directly into this unethical experiment, a situation that may have been motivated both by his parent’s Catholic faith and his doctor’s research interests (Goodman and Maggio 2006). Rev. Lawrence maintains that the doctors convinced David’s parents to conceive again after the death of their first son because they wanted, as reported in the press, “a test subject for their studies of immunology” (McVicker 1997)…

As an unwilling subject in an unethical isolation experiment, David was simultaneously kept alive by space-age technology and imprisoned by it until his death in 1984.


[1] Oman-Reagan, Michael P. 2016. “David Vetter and the Children of Mars.” SocArXiv, Open Science Framework. Preprint, submitted February 1, 2017.

#scitech, #medicine, #space (032/365)

📷 Texas Children’s Hospital

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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