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What is Bubble Boy Disease?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Bubble boy disease refers to one of several genetic disorders that manifest as an inability by the body to produce cells that battle infection or illness. Though the specific nature of this disease can be the result of a number of different genetic causes, in general the effective condition is the same. Someone afflicted with this type of disorder has an immune system which functions so poorly it is typically considered to be effectively absent. This disease is named for the fact that in many instances of this illness in the past, the person was forced to live in a plastic bubble to avoid contact with germs and viruses.

Technically referred to as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), bubble boy disease is a genetic disorder that can be caused by a number of different genetic issues. This is typically a hereditary disorder that can be passed on by a mother or father, in whom the disorder is recessive and so some offspring may not have the disease while others do. Regardless of what genetic disorder precisely causes this disease in a specific individual, the results are typically the same: the immune system in the person is unable to properly produce T cells and B cells, which fight off illness.

Someone with bubble boy disease does not ultimately die from the disease itself. Much like auto immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a secondary infection or illness will ultimately cause the person’s death. This is because the disorder itself does not actively harm a person; it simply renders a person’s immune system incapable of fighting off germs and viruses. With modern medical treatment, however, this condition can be fought and there is a decent chance of recovery through gene therapy, stem cell treatments, or bone marrow transplant.

The term “bubble boy disease” stems primarily from cases of the disorder in which the person afflicted with the illness was forced to live in a plastic bubble to avoid germs and viruses. A boy named David Vetter was the first “bubble boy” and was the person for whom the term was coined. He was born with the genetic disorder in 1971 and spent nearly the entirety of his life within a series of rooms separated from others by sheets of plastic. Unfortunately, he died in 1984 after a bone marrow transplant in which a dormant virus, which could not be found using screening practices of the time, was introduced into his system and spread like cancer throughout his body.

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Discussion Comments
By jbpimp — On Jul 16, 2013

I have a friend who is 36 and female, who recently found out that she was born in a bubble at birth? Her parents never told her this information until recently. How should she react to this life altering information? Illness, cancer, medical issues, have been prevalent and continuous throughout her life. Any information at all, specialized clinics, or other references would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

By EdRick — On Sep 08, 2011

@robbie21 - I remember that kid, too. I read something about him recently, though, that was saying he was actually pretty unstable psychologically. You would be, too, if you had only ever been handled by rubber gloves and lived in a giant bubble.

I don't think they do use bubble anymore for severe combined immunodeficiency disease. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, someone gave us a pamphlet on cord blood donation that mentioned cord blood is sometimes used to treat this disease now. Or bone marrow transplantation has come a long way so that babies with this disease sometimes even have transplants in utero!

By robbie21 — On Sep 08, 2011

I was a kid in the mid-80s, so I remember learning about the Bubble Boy. He had died within relatively recent memory and, of course, the memory of the image of him inside that bubble was so fresh and poignant.

But I haven't heard of a kid in a bubble in a long time. Do they still use protective bubbles for boy in the bubble disease? (And it did seem like they were boys if I remember right.)

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