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Can people get bone marrow transplants from baboons?


Primate Xenotransplantation
Dr. Gero Huetter and colleagues claim to have cured a case of AIDS via human-to-human bone marrow transplant.
Dr. Gero Huetter and colleagues claim to have cured a case of AIDS via human-to-human bone marrow transplant.
Michael Kappeler/Getty Images

­Transferring live cells, tissues or organs from animals to human bodies is called xenotransplantation. Genetically, primates are the best donor candidates for xenotransplantation because they're the­ most closely related to us. But for that same reason, doctors are particularly cautious about using their body parts since humans would be more susceptible to foreign bacteria and viruses (which is why they were hesitant about Getty's procedure). Prior to Getty's transplant, doctors had performed a limited number of baboon-to-human xenotransplants. A newborn that was given a baboon heart in 1984 died in less than a month [source: Neergaard]. Similarly, in 1992, a man received a liver transplant from a baboon and survived only a couple of months. A few years later, Getty fared much better than those two patients -- but it probably had little to do with the baboon donor.

First, Getty's doctor, Suzanna Ilstad, took extra measures to help guarantee the safety of the transplant. More specifically, Dr. Ilstad used certain types of tissue cells called facilitators. Those cells are engineered to prevent graft versus host disease (GVHD). GVHD occurs when the healthy transplanted cells attack the cells in the recipient's body. Before the surgery, Getty also underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy to suppress his immune system.

The results? In the first two months after the transplant, Getty showed signs of improved health, including gaining about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and recovering from recurrent asthma [source: Fricker]. Yet the baboon marrow didn't engraft. Instead, the doctors monitoring Getty's transplant attributed the rebound to the radiation and medication he took prior to the procedure. By killing so many white blood cells in the process of the shutting down Getty's immune system, the therapy may also have destroyed HIV-infected blood cells as well [source: Fricker]. The later development of a drug combination known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, was instrumental in prolonging Getty's life post-transplant and is still prescribed to many HIV and AIDS patients.

Getty lived for 11 more years after the groundbreaking procedure and died in 2006 from heart failure. Since then, he's still the only patient to receive a bone marrow transplant from a baboon. The inherent risk involved and the arrival of more effective AIDS medications explain why we haven't seen more doctors attempting to perfect the baboon xenotransplantation.

But human-to-human bone marrow transplants aren't off the table as a possible cure for HIV. In November 2008, Dr. Gero Huetter and a medical team in Berlin announced that they successfully treated a case of AIDS with a bone marrow transplant. Using marrow from an HIV-immune donor, the doctors reported that it safely engrafted. Twenty months after the transplant, tests so far indicate that the patient is HIV-free. However, the international medical community has refrained from validating the claims until further tests are completed.