TOPICS > Science

Background: Taking Risks to Fight AIDS

February 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: For the last six years, Jeff Getty has been a full-time AIDS activist, often taking part in demonstrations by the group ACT-UP, in times past smuggling AIDS drugs into the US. He has been infected with HIV for 15 years, and he’s now in the late stages of AIDS.

JEFF GETTY: AIDS takes no prisoners. You know, if you don’t fight AIDS, you’re dead, and so if you look at it from that point of view, you must continuously take action to stay alive.

SPENCER MICHELS: Two years ago, Getty, who lives in Oakland, California, heard about plans for a radical experiment to transplant bone marrow from a baboon into humans. Baboons have a natural resistance to HIV. They don’t get AIDS. The hope of the researcher, Dr. Susan Ilstadt, at the University of Pittsburgh, was to transfer the baboon’s resistance to the human, without transferring any baboon viruses that could infect the recipient.

JEFF GETTY: I wrote a letter to Dr. Ilstadt volunteering to be a soldier in the front line, so to speak, and to, you know, that I philosophically told her I was willing to take, take on the battle and risk my life for this one.

SPENCER MICHELS: Getty was chosen for a transplant over other volunteers because he was in relatively good health. Despite the advanced condition of his disease, he had a fighting chance to survive long enough to further the science.

JEFF GETTY: I’m going to die anyhow unless some miraculous thing comes along, so why not give it a try.

SPOKESMAN: A hundred is a fine dose. It’s very, it’s what they consider a replacement dosage.

SPENCER MICHELS: Getty and other activists, including these at San Francisco’s Project Inform, encourage scientists to proceed with cutting edge research. They want researchers to focus on rebuilding the human immune system damaged by HIV, a new approach to AIDS treatment. But the use of animal transplants has brought opposition from animal rights advocates. Getty, who loves animals, was also disturbed that a baboon would have to be sacrificed for this first experiment, although not in later ones. The Food & Drug Administration finally approved the transplant last Summer and also made sure the baboon was free of disease.

JEFF GETTY: The choice of animal was important, and when I heard that we had an extremely clean animal and that was heavily scrutinized that actually I feel safer in some ways with the baboon cells than I would getting a blood transfusion from a blood bank.

SPENCER MICHELS: Finally, in mid-December in a half-hour procedure at San Francisco General Hospital, Getty received two types of baboon bone marrow cells: immature stem cells to augment and improve the immune system, and newly-discovered facilitator cells to help the body accept foreign tissue. During the three weeks he spent at the General Clinical Research Center, he did not develop any infection. On his well-publicized release, he and his doctors were distinctly upbeat.

JEFF GETTY: Yeah, I’m back. To the naysayers who said that I would never recover from this procedure, well, here I am, and you were wrong. (applause)

DR. STEVEN DEEKS, University of California: The procedure was safe, safer than we had initially expected. Jeff tolerated everything very well. But the more critical question about whether or not this procedure actually provided any benefit for Jeff remains unclear.

SPENCER MICHELS: Dr. Steven Deeks of the University of California performed the transplant. He admits the unprecedented procedure was risky.

DR. STEVEN DEEKS: Well, Jeff clearly could have had an allergic reaction to the infusion and clearly, that was always a possibility. No one’s ever done this before. We didn’t know. His own immune system was temporarily suppressed by the procedure, but it’s come back right to base line, and Jeff today feels as well as he’s felt in quite some time.

JEFF GETTY: I can taste, I can smell, and I can breathe, three main things that I was lacking the ability to do in October.

SPENCER MICHELS: Getty isn’t sure why, but because he has studied immunology, he does understand what is supposed to be happening to the baboon cells in his body.

JEFF GETTY: They hopefully migrated to my hip where they’re now residing and have taken up space, because of the ablation of my immune system were given time to start a home in my hip, and hopefully now, they’re cranking out little baboon progenitors and progeny that are going through and maybe changing the balance of my immune system, and possibly fighting HIV, possibly helping my immune system signal itself better to fight HIV, itself.

DR. STEVEN DEEKS: HIV is a tricky virus. HIV infects brain cells; it infects all sorts of cells in the body. There’s no way that by this procedure we will completely eliminate HIV from Jeff’s body. There’s absolutely no way.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, Dr. Deeks and his patient say their experiment thrusts AIDS research into a new direction which many academics have opposed as too radical.

DR. STEVEN DEEKS: You have to understand that for the past ten, fifteen years in AIDS research, most of the focus has been on stopping the virus, and we’re very, very good at that now. Jeff needs a rebuilt immune system. And there a lot of people who won’t think that’s possible. But we here think it’s at least worth looking into.

SPENCER MICHELS: Getty agrees. He says such research should have been done 10 years ago but was stifled by regulators and academics.

JEFF GETTY: If you ask them to approve a bold measure and something goes wrong, they’re going to get fired. So the name of the game is stall it as long as possible, till they know it’s safe. I’m optimistic, but I’m an angry man inside because I’m tired of the delays and watching my friends die. I’ve watched hundreds of my friends die.

SPENCER MICHELS: Early results show few, if any, baboon cells engrafted into Getty’s body. More tests are planned. But his immune system is much improved. He says that unexpected, unexplained development is another reason for boldness in AIDS research.