By Michael Neill
January 08, 1996 12:00 PM

ON THE EVENING OF DEC. 14, about two dozen people, their vigil illuminated by flickering candles, waited anxiously outside the entrance of San Francisco General Hospital. Finally, Susan Getty, accompanied by her daughter Jennifer and Kenneth Klueh, who has been her son’s companion since 1987, emerged. “It’s in him,” she announced, and the small crowd broke out in cheers. “His spirits are great,” added Jennifer. “He’s having a cup of mint tea and a snack. He’s very, very happy.” Jeff Getty, Susan’s 38-year-old son, having just received immune cells taken from a baboon’s bone marrow, was on his way to making medical history.

In the final week of 1995, Getty was still in his private hospital room and, with the knowledge that he was participating in a radical new attack on AIDS, still in good spirits. In a bold experiment to rejuvenate his devastated immune system, Getty, in a half-hour transfusion, had received the cells from a species that doesn’t get AIDS. The hope was, the baboon’s cells would join forces with Getty’s immune system to battle the diseases that have brought him close to death several times.

Although the type of procedure Getty underwent is unlikely to save his life—he is already in the advanced stages of AIDS—it offers hope for the future for roughly 1 million people in the U.S. (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) who are HIV positive and for diabetes sufferers as well. “It’s not like Jeff will leave the hospital a healthy young man,” says Dr. Steven Deeks, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who administered the transfusion of baboon cells. “But I’m optimistic that we’ll learn a lot about HIV and whether it’s possible to restore normal immune function.”

Getty, the third of four children of a Waterford, Conn., grocer and homemaker, has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1977, and for years he has been at the forefront of the battle to get new AIDS treatments approved and on the market. Such is his zeal that he has been willing to offer his own body as a laboratory to test drugs and procedures whose effects are still unknown. “Being the first person to undergo this procedure is not a really good place to be,” he says. “But someone’s got to be first.”

A bisexual who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987, Getty retired that year on disability from his job as an administrative analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, and poured his energies into AIDS activism. “AIDS changed me spiritually,” he told PEOPLE shortly before the operation. “I was a little successful yuppie, worried about how many cars and homes I could own. AIDS taught me that it’s not cool to be selfish.” By 1988 he was transporting experimental AIDS medications, such . as the immune-system enhancer iso-prinosine, from Mexico to the U.S. and joining ACT UP in pressuring drug companies and the FDA to make AIDS treatments more available. When he read about the baboon-cell therapy, he didn’t hesitate to volunteer. “Sometimes you have to take it to these extremes to get things done,” he says.

In 1992 researchers at the University of Pittsburgh implanted baboon bone marrow in a 56-year-old patient already very sick with AIDS. That transplant was rejected, and the patient died from AIDS-related illness two months later. Since then researchers have developed a technique in which immature immune cells, called stem cells, are culled from the bone marrow. These cells have not yet learned to distinguish between a host body and a foreign invader; and when transplanted, they don’t attack the host body. Instead, with the aid of “facilitator cells” discovered recently by Dr. Suzanne Ildstad and her colleagues at Pittsburgh, they learn to coexist with the host cells—and, researchers hope, to battle HIV and other invaders to which baboons are naturally resistant.

Convinced that Ildstad’s technique offered hope, Getty contacted her in 1994—and ran into a problem. The FDA, concerned that lethal AIDS-like baboon viruses, as yet unknown, might cross over to humans as a result of the transfusion, hesitated to approve it—relenting only after a media blitz orchestrated by Getty and emotionally charged testimony by his mother and three sisters at an FDA hearing in Washington. The procedure was approved Aug. 14—for Getty alone. When he contracted pneumonia in October, though, researchers were forced to postpone it for two months.

A few days before the transfusion, Getty underwent a life-threatening course of chemotherapy, designed to further suppress his immune system and enhance acceptance of the baboon cells. “It makes me want to throw up now and then,” he said at the time, “but it’s not stopping me from eating chocolate-covered ginger cake.” On the morning of the procedure, he received additional radiation to make room for the baboon’s cells.

The cells that entered Getty’s arm through an IV drip during the half-hour procedure were extracted on Dec. 13 at the University of Pittsburgh from a 7-year-old male baboon, nicknamed Raccoon, supplied by Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio. Because the FDA and the CDC wanted all the tissues from the first donor preserved for study, Raccoon was then put down by lethal injection. That death pits animal-rights crusaders against AIDS activists like Getty. “We don’t have the right to kill another being,” says Megan Patterson, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “We consider this experiment to be ghastly and pointless.”

“I’m really sad about that, and I hope that later if they do this, they won’t have to sacrifice the animal,” says Getty. “But I’m much sadder about the hundreds of friends I’ve lost to AIDS.”

By mid-January doctors should know if Getty’s body has accepted the cells. It will be months before they learn whether they are fighting AIDS. “I have seen so many people die, I can’t count them anymore,” says Getty. Because of them, he will continue to fight in the only way left to him.


LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco