Boy, 12, dies after undergoing historic transplant at U to treat HIV and leukemia

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2013 - 11:53 PM

Cell transplant was done on the boy, 12, who had HIV and leukemia.

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A child who was born with the HIV virus, received an experimental treatment April 23 in his hospital room at the University of Minnesota. Dr. John Wagner is a specialist in children’s cancer who is leading the medical team (top, right). Some others on the team include Dr. Michael Verneris (right, second from tip), a transplant specialist and Dr. Timothy Schacker, an AIDS expert at the U of M (not pictured) .

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune file

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A boy with HIV and leukemia, who underwent an experimental cell transplant at University of ­Minnesota’s Amplatz Children’s Hospital, has died of complications from the procedure, his doctors said Friday.

Twelve-year-old Eric Blue, of Alexandria, La., had not been publicly identified until Friday, when university officials released a statement confirming that he died July 5, nearly three months after the risky — and potentially historic — procedure.

Blue was in line to become the second person in the world to be cured of both deadly illnesses by the extraordinary type of bone marrow transplant, doctors said.

“He was incredibly brave and courageous, and understood he was participating in something historic,” said Dr. Michael Verneris, a transplant specialist at the university, who treated Blue.

In June, Blue developed a severe complication called graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when the immune cells of the donor attack various tissues of the body.

“Sometimes the disease is a very treatable problem,” said Verneris. “Unfortunately in his circumstance, for whatever reason, it was worse than it would otherwise be … he had an especially bad form of it.”

Until Friday, Blue’s identity had been withheld for privacy reasons. But his mother granted permission to reveal his name following his death to acknowledge her son’s pioneering medical contributions, according to U officials.

The procedure, which was performed April 23, involved injecting Blue with blood cells from a donor with a rare genetic resistance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Less than 1 percent of the population is born with this genetic resistance, according to Verneris. Doctors hoped the transplant would rid the boy’s body of both the leukemia and HIV and help fight off any recurrence.

While not yet conclusive, tissue and blood tests obtained through Blue’s treatment have shown an absence of HIV, even after his medications were discontinued, Verneris said.

“There was no sign of leukemia either for that matter,” he said. “Things were looking quite bright. Of course, that makes it even more bittersweet in some ways … that he was almost there.”

“This patient absolutely needed to have this transplant,” Verneris added. “And if he hadn’t developed a very common side effect of bone marrow transplant and died from it, we were hopeful this was all going to work well.”

Both the boy and his doctors knew his case was going to be a challenge, and success was never a guarantee. Still, physicians say Blue’s case helped them advance the science of the novel treatment.

“The promise we made to the child … was that we were going to learn from this, and we still are learning,” said Verneris. “This is the first step in many, [and] hopefully we’ll be able to really improve the outcomes of not only people with HIV, but people with ­leukemia through understanding these processes better.”

Rose French 612-673-4352

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  • A child who was born with HIV received an experimental treatment in his hospital room at the University of Minnesota. Here, he is shown receiving cord blood cells from a donor with a genetic resistance to HIV infection.

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