3 Lessons Medicine Learned From the Life and Death of ‘Bubble Boy’

We gained much more beyond the makings for a kitschy made-for-TV movie.
Dec 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

The Bubble Boy, as David Vetter was known, made headlines after being born in a Houston hospital in 1971 without a functioning immune system. The world watched for years as Vetter, diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID, grew up inside a pressurized plastic bubble filled with sterilized air.

Doctors wanted to conduct tests on David because his older brother had died of the disease the previous year, before even seeing his first birthday. This “Retro Report” from The New York Times looks back on the odd medical phenomenon that made the boy vulnerable to germs and ailments, tested the limits of the era’s science, and captured the American imagination. David died at age 12 after an experimental bone marrow transplant accidentally exposed him to illness.

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Americans were so fascinated by David that his story crept into pop culture. Paul Simon wrote a song called “The Boy in the Bubble” that appears on the Grammy Award–winning album Graceland. John Travolta starred in a movie about being a teen trapped in a bubble—which ended with him leaving the bubble and riding off into the sunset on a horse.

That was an unrealistic happy ending for most who were diagnosed with SCID in David’s time, but his life and death did give doctors valuable insight. As his mother, Carol Ann Demaret, told the Times, “I always thought at some point when David left the bubble that he would be a researcher himself, and he would help mankind that way. It turned out that he is helping mankind but in a different way.”

He helped in a few different ways, as it turns out.

No Longer a Death Sentence

What doctors and researchers were able to learn from David’s 12-year life and his death helped them find a defect in the X chromosome. Doctors report that since this discovery they have made considerable progress with bone marrow transplants, which the Times reports is “usually successful in treating SCID when it is done within a baby’s first three months.”

Clues to Cancer Development

David underwent a bone marrow transplant, an untested procedure at the time, with his sister’s bone marrow. But the Epstein-Barr virus was dormant in his sister’s marrow and triggered an aggressive cancer that killed David before he could develop an immune system to counteract it. At the time, his doctor told the Los Angeles Times it was “the first conclusive evidence of cancer developing in a human being after infection by a virus.”

Since that discovery, the American Cancer Society notes that several viruses have been linked to cancer, including the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is transmitted through touch.

Last of His Kind

The protective bubble David was kept in was controversial, with many asking his parents if his quality of life—never feeling human touch, for example—made life worth living. He’s believed to be the last person with SCID to be confined to a bubble and the longest-living person to have been raised inside one.

With the increased awareness that David’s case brought to doctors and parents everywhere, there has been more vigilant early diagnosis, which has led to better early care and treatment, including in utero marrow transplants.