The boy in the bubble

Our immune system works really well to prevent diseases and to keep us healthy. Imagine what might happen if your immune system didn’t work.

David Vetter

American David Vetter (21 September 1971–22 February 1984) was born with severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare inherited disease, which meant that his immune system didn’t work. Consequently, David could not be exposed to germs.

After David was born, an immunologist created an isolator to keep him alive and germ-free until a bone marrow transplant could be performed.

David needed a bone marrow transplant because his bone marrow didn’t produce immune cells (immune cells are produced in the bone marrow). David needed to continue to live in the isolator until a donor was found who matched (or was compatible with) his bone marrow. The isolator was a sterile environment surrounded by plastic. David became known as ‘the boy in the bubble’. He was unable to leave this sterile environment for fear of contracting a disease.

Although David would spend 2–3 weeks at a time in his home (in a bubble built for him there), he spent most of his life at Texas Children’s Hospital. When he was 10 years old, David went to live at home. He only lived another 3 years before he died of cancer after a bone marrow transplant from his sister.

A suitable match was not found so David’s medical team performed a transplant with marrow donated by his sister. Sadly, his sister’s marrow contained a virus that was transferred to David. This virus seriously infected him as he had no immune system, which led to cancer and his death.

Life in the bubble

David had to live a very sterile and isolated life to keep him free from pathogenic microorganisms. All water, air, food, nappies and clothes were disinfected with special cleaning agents before entering his bubble. People could only handle him through special plastic gloves attached to the walls of his bubble. Labels had to be removed from any products. Items received by David had to be placed in a chamber filled with ethylene oxide gas (for sterilisation) for 4 hours at 60°C and then aerated (because ethylene oxide is toxic) for a period of 1–7 days before they could finally go in the bubble.

The bubble had very loud motors that would keep it inflated. This made conversations with David difficult. As David grew, the bubble was extended to give him more room. When David was 4, he started to poke holes in the bubble so the doctors had to explain to him why he was in the bubble and he learned about his illness for the first time.

David was educated and he had his own TV in the bubble. However, he longed to see the outside life he saw on TV and that he could peek at through his window. He realised that whatever he did depended on what somebody else decided he should do. He also said he couldn’t see the point in doing schoolwork because he wasn’t going to do anything anyway.

David did have friends who would come to his house to play with him. One time, David went to the movies in his transport bubble (made to take him to and from the hospital) with his friend to see Return of the Jedi.

The NASA suit

In 1977, researchers from NASA used their knowledge and experience of space suits to make David a special suit that would allow him to leave his cocoon and walk around outside. David was fearful of the suit, believing it to be full of germs, and when the press and scientists came to watch him use it for the first time, he refused to go into it. He only used the suit seven times. He was made a replacement suit but he never wore it.

David died in 1984. Movies have been made and books written about David and his life in the bubble.

Nature of Science

Sometimes science achievements allow things to happen that some people think should not happen. Without ‘the bubble’, David would not have lived. There is ongoing debate as to whether it was cruel to let David live as long as he did. David became depressed and was often unhappy ‘trapped’ in his bubble. What do you think about this science achievement?

Useful links

Links to a panel of experts (including David’s doctors and his mother) who answer questions on the events in David Vetter's life.

www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bubble/sfeature/index.html external link
www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bubble/sfeature/sf_forum.html external link

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