NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Two years ago, I was diagnosed with AIDS. Since then, I have often experienced the mind-numbing fear and desperation that leads some people to submit to bizarre medical experiments. The now-famous AIDS patient Jeff Getty, for example, allowed bone marrow from a baboon to be transplanted into his own weakened body. Convinced that this procedure represents his only chance for survival, and that it offers hope for the rest of us, Mr. Getty has staked his very life on a gamble he is sure to lose.
The public-relations efforts of the institutions involved have depicted a young man bravely battling an incurable disease, a pioneer in the realm of scientific progress. The doctors who persuaded him that endowing him with a baboon's defenses could magically restore his immune system must have capitalized on this image, and on the fear and hopelessness that surround this illness.
If AIDS is the most stigmatized disease of our time, it is also the most exploited. AIDS is an easy headline-maker -- and an easy money-maker. As people wisely support the innovation of alternative treatments, they unwittingly create easy prey for opportunists of every imaginable sort. The traveling "snake oil" salesman of yesteryear now uses mass media and hospital ethics committees to legitimize his product.
Last summer, when experts in immunology gathered at a meeting held by the Food and Drug Administration to determine the risks of the baboon bone-marrow transplant, there was general agreement that the procedure was more likely to kill Mr. Getty than to help him.
Finally bowing to the emotional pleas of his family, the FDA ignored the scientific evidence and gave the green light to the experiment. Mr. Getty undoubtedly signed an informed-consent form. These documents, which are legally required prior to any hazardous medical procedure, indicate that the patient understands the risks involved and the alternatives available.
Out of options
One must question how informed Mr. Getty's consent was, and exactly what information his doctors were feeding him. In one interview, he stated, "I know I could die from this treatment, but I know that I will die if I do nothing." Someone had convinced him that he had exhausted all other treatment options.
But he continued to take chemotherapy, and a news report last week suggested that Mr. Getty's condition has improved, probably for that reason. The report said there was no evidence that the baboon marrow had had any significant effect.
The idea that baboon bone marrow is the sole source of hope for late-stage AIDS patients is ludicrous and insulting. Historically, cross-species transplants, or xenografts, have proved deadly to both the recipient and the donor; not one has ever been successful. Beyond this gratuitous loss of animal life, however, is the very real risk of unleashing new diseases into the human population.
As HIV so clearly illustrates, many microbes that are pathogenic to one species are completely harmless in another. Baboons routinely carry bubonic plague, Ebola and cancer-causing viruses. They may also harbor bacteria, viruses and parasites that will create new illnesses in humans. The baboon's apparent resistance to HIV is being used as justification for this procedure, yet it ironically points to its greatest danger.
Since, 1905, at least 33 humans have undergone animal-to-human transplants. Each xenograft costs approximately $300,000. How many more people have died because these public funds have been diverted away from truly lifesaving programs? Considering the paucity of funding for AIDS housing, primary care and prevention programs, any subsidy of these dangerous experiments is cruel and tragically wasteful.
If xenografts were actually safe, effective and economically feasible, there would still remain the question of whether we have the right to kill non-human beings for the benefit of human beings. I value my life no more than a baboon values its. Fortunately, the facts do not force us to make such complicated ethical judgments. Respect for all life can only hasten scientific progress.
Steven I. Simmons is a writer associated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.