If his doctors are right, the boy with HIV and leukemia may have made history on Tuesday.
But chances are, the boy himself will remember it as the day he spoke with Julius Erving.
Right around noon, Dr. John Wagner gave his young patient an autographed basketball from the legendary hall-of-famer, “Dr. J,” just before beginning an experimental procedure at the University of Minnesota’s Amplatz Children’s Hospital. The boy didn’t know there was more to come.
The child — who has not been publicly identified — could become the second person in the world cured of both deadly illnesses by an extraordinary type of cell transplant.
Wagner, a specialist in children’s cancer, had been working with his team for weeks to prepare for the risky — and potentially historic — procedure, a type of bone-marrow transplant. The procedure involves injecting the child with blood cells that are genetically resistant to HIV, the virus the causes AIDS.
Less than 1 percent of the population is born with this genetic resistance, according to Dr. Michael Verneris, a transplant specialist at the university. The hope is that the transplant will rid the boy’s body of both the leukemia and HIV and help fight off any recurrence.
“It could really be a total game-changer,” said Verneris.
But the big surprise came as the boy, a basketball fanatic, was starting to fall asleep after his transplant. “Can you try to stay awake for a little longer?” Wagner said. “Because Julius Erving is going to call.”
A few minutes later, Wagner held his iPhone by the boy’s ear. “JULIUS!” the boy said.
Wagner, who knew Erving, just smiled.
‘One day at a time’
Nurses and doctors crowded into the boy’s hospital room shortly before the infusion on Tuesday, bearing gifts and balloons. “Happy BMT [bone-marrow transplant] Day!” someone wrote on the whiteboard in his room.
The boy giddily unwrapped his presents — a Nerf basketball set and football — as a nurse draped a plastic bag with red liquid on an overhead rack.
The infusion itself took only about 10 minutes. The boy hugged Erving’s basketball with one arm until the IV bag with his new cells was empty.
During their phone call afterward, the boy told Erving he’d like to play pro basketball. “Let’s take it one day at a time,” Erving replied. “I’ll be praying for you.”
The boy’s mother released a statement Tuesday, saying: “This is the beginning of a new chance for me to have a healthier kid. I am thankful for the University of Minnesota giving him the chance to live.”
His doctors say the boy, who is from out of state, will remain hospitalized for about four weeks because of the risk of complications, and won’t be able to go home for at least three months.
Tuesday’s procedure is only the second time that doctors have attempted this type of treatment. In 2007, a man named Timothy Ray Brown had a similar transplant in Germany to treat both leukemia and HIV.
Tests show he is free of both diseases six years later, and on Tuesday, he also called the boy to wish him well.
“As the first person in the world to be cured of HIV,” Brown, who lives in Las Vegas, told the boy, “I’m hoping that you’ll be the second.”