David Vetter Isolation Suit

The inspirational story of "Bubble Boy" has lasting impact

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by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

David Vetter (1971–1984) became one of the Texas Medical Center’s most famous patients. He was born with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), an inherited condition in which a patient lacks the white blood cells that fight infection. David, nicknamed “Bubble Boy” by the media, lived nearly his entire 12-year life inside a series of germ-free plastic bubbles waiting for a cure for his fatal immune disease.

David’s sterile protective bubbles at the hospital and at his parents’ home were made larger as he grew. In 1974, doctors at Houston's Texas Children's Hospital considered how they might help David experience life beyond the stationary isolator bubbles that protected him from germs. The doctors turned to engineers at NASA for help. Three years and many prototypes later, NASA created a custom-made Mobile Biological Isolation System, an enclosed spacesuit based on the garments worn by astronauts while quarantined after a spaceflight. The $50,000 suit came with a 54-page user's manual and allowed six-year-old David to walk outside his plastic bubble for the first time. David wore the suit on only six occasions before he outgrew it. Though a replacement was made, David never adapted to wearing an isolation suit and refused to wear one again.

In 1983, doctors discovered a promising new technique to treat SCID. A donor who did not have to be a perfect match would contribute bone marrow, which would be used to strengthen David’s white blood cells and repair his immune system. Though the surgery seemed to work initially, David fell ill in January 1984. To receive treatment, he was removed from the bubble for the first time in his life on February 7. He died 15 days later of a form of lymph cancer caused by an undetected virus in the transplanted bone marrow.

Shortly after his death, the Texas Children's Allergy and Immunology Clinic in Houston opened the David Center dedicated to research, diagnosis, and treatment of immune deficiencies. Today, thanks to medical advances made possible by studies of David’s disease, children with SCID often live healthy lives.

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David Vetter Isolation Suit Artifact from The Woodlands, Texas
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